'Sundowner winds' feared on Zaca fire

California blaze grows; more fires burning in Montana, Idaho.

BY P.J. HELLER | BOISE, Idaho | August 14, 2007

Sign thanks firefighters for efforts in battling Zaca wildfire.

The Jocko Lakes fire has forced evacuations for the second time in the Seeley Lake area.
Credit: Kent Slaughter

Nearly 3,000 firefighters fought to corral the ever growing Zaca wildfire burning now for 42 days in rugged mountain wilderness on California's central coast. Meantime, dozens of wildfires continued burning in Montana and Idaho, threatening structures and forcing evacuations.

While the Zaca fire has been burning into wilderness areas and away from homes prompting the downgrading of evacuation orders to warnings a shift in the winds expected to begin Monday night could send flames racing back toward populated areas.

The expected "sundowner winds" which often begin in late afternoon or evening, coupled with temperatures forecast to be in triple digits and extremely low relative humidity, were expected to continue Tuesday and Wednesday.

The National Weather Service has posted a red flag warning for all of Santa Barbara County where the Zaca fire was raging. The warning was also posted for San Luis Obispo, Ventura and Los Angeles counties. All of the warnings were in effect until 8 a.m. Wednesday. Fire officials posted a red flag alert for Santa Barbara County through 9 p.m. Wednesday.

By Tuesday morning, the Zaca fire had surpassed 100,000 acres 156 square miles. Under a new method to calculate containment, the fire was only 44 percent contained. Previously, it had been reported as 68 percent contained.

"This may seem as a sudden drop in containment, but is due to a change in the method used for the calculations," officials said. "The percent contained now reflects the control strategy for the entire fire, including the direct fire lines that have been completed and indirect fire lines that are in place and being improved.

"The fire has not jumped any containment lines and is still within the control objectives set by the incident commanders," they added.

Firefighters battled the blaze, which started July 4, both on the ground and from the air, utilizing a DC-10 aircraft to make multiple drops of fire retardant on the fire. Columns of smoke could be seen from four counties. Nearly 600 structures remained threatened.

The fire, burning in the Dick Smith Wilderness and Los Padres National Forest, so far has cost more than $69 million to battle. It was not expected to be contained until Sept. 7.

The Zaca fire was just one of more than four dozen large wildfires burning across Western states. The majority of the fires 31 were burning in Montana and Idaho.

In Montana, about 300 residents near the resort community of Seeley Lake remained out of their homes due to the threat from the more than 21,000-acre Jocko Lakes fire.

The evacuation Sunday marked the second time the residents had been forced from their homes and prompted the American Red Cross to reopen an evacuation center in Bonner. Officials said 3,100 structures were threatened by the blaze, burning about 26 miles from Missoula. The fire, started by lightning on Aug. 3, was 9 percent contained. Full containment was expected Sept. 15.

The largest fire in the state was the Chippy Creek blaze, which has burned more than 66,700 acres. The fire, burning about 24 miles from Thompson Falls and 42 miles southwest of Kalispell, was 30 percent contained. Evacuation orders remained in place for the towns of Hubbart Reservoir and Niarada; residents evacuated from part of Lonepine were allowed to return home.

In Idaho, the communities of Warren and Secesh remained under a voluntary evacuation order as firefighters battled the East Zone Complex of three fires. The lightning-sparked blaze burning about 25 miles northeast of McCall has charred more than 94,000 acres since it began July 6. It was 15 percent contained and officials said they did not expect full containment until the end of September.

The Cascade Complex of fires about three miles northeast of Cascade, meantime, has burned more than 58,000 acres. Evacuation orders for the Warm Lake area were in place. The fire forced a cutoff of power between the communities of Scott Valley and Yellow Pine. The fire was 21 percent contained.

The Johnson Creek and Yellow Pine areas were under a mandatory evacuation order due to the Landmark Complex of two fires. The nearly 50,000-acre fire was about five miles from Yellow Pine and 34 miles southeast of McCall. Residents were to be escorted out Tuesday morning. An evacuation center has been set up by the American Red Cross at the LDS Church in McCall. The fire was 25 percent contained.

Elsewhere, the east entrance to Yellowstone National Park was scheduled to reopen Tuesday after being shut down Sunday and Monday by the threat from the Columbine fire. That lightning-caused blaze, which began Thursday, had jumped to 7,000 acres. Full containment was predicted for the end of August.

In Michigan's Upper Peninsula, the Sleeper Lake fire in the Upper Peninsula had burned more than 18,000 acres and was 50 percent contained. The blaze was about 60 miles west of Sault Ste. Marie in Luce County. The fire started Aug. 2 and was believed started by lightning.


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