Official: Signs of progress as Idaho wildfires rage

Posted at 7:32 PM, Aug 20, 2013
and last updated 2013-08-20 21:37:04-04
By Mayra Cuevas and Michael Carry


(CNN) — Firefighters battling a massive blaze in Idaho made headway on Tuesday, a top official said.

The Beaver Creek fire has devoured 106,000 acres in Idaho’s Sun Valley, but authorities could have the fire up to 20% contained by Tuesday night, incident commander Beth Lund told reporters.

“They’re making good progress today,” she said, noting that authorities are “cautiously optimistic” about the wildfire, which has threatened thousands of homes and forced residents to evacuate.

“Right now our primary goal is to get people back in their homes within the next day or two,” Lund said.

Thunderstorms forecast for Wednesday are a mixed blessing, she said. Lightning could further fuel fires, but more cloud cover and increased relative humidity would help firefighters, she said.

Lightning ignited the wildfire more than two weeks ago. Nearly 1,800 people are battling the blaze. So far, it’s cost $11.6 million, officials said.

In a mountainous area nearby, another wildfire was also raging Tuesday. The Little Queens Fire has scorched an estimated 8,000 acres, with no containment.

As that blaze threatened the tiny town of Atlanta, Idaho, two dozen or so residents ignored a mandatory evacuation on Monday to take a stand against the fiery fury of nature.

“About 70% of the residents have stayed behind to help,” said Gene Haught, Atlanta’s fire chief.

By Tuesday, the evacuation order had been downgraded, barring the public from the town but allowing the town’s 35 permanent residents to stay.

“What we are doing mainly is looking at areas that might be a problem and cleaning those up. As equipment arrives, we are going to help deploy it to do some structure protection,” Haught said Monday.

Residents have also used their own earth-moving equipment to cut a fire line around the town.

On Tuesday, two firefighting crews and three engines joined them.

Atlanta, Idaho, is a historic mountain town located about 135 miles northeast of Boise. The community, which includes many second homes, is surrounded by the Boise National Forest. It was founded during the Civil War as a mining community — a trade that attracted Haught and his wife Julie, originally from West Virginia.

“It’s beautiful,” said Julie Haught, “I’ll never forget the first time I came here. I thought we had mountains in West Virginia, until I came here.”

For Julie Haught, Atlanta is “a different world,” full of history, charm and a close-knit community.

“You got to be here, visit and see why. It is very historic. A lot of these old buildings from back in the day are still here,” she said, not wanting to think about the damage the fire would cause to the buildings in the little town she calls home.

But like its much larger namesake in the South, the Idaho town of Atlanta has risen from the ashes before.

According to Gene Haught, “The town has been wiped down by fire a couple of times in the 1800s and early in the 1900s.”

His wife prays it won’t come to that.

“I would miss all the beauty of what we got left. We are hoping and praying the fire doesn’t come to this town,” she said, “I have seen the destruction to other parts of the town. It will be really heartbreaking if it ends up looking like other burned down areas in the forest.”

CNN’s Dave Alsup and Elwyn Lopez contributed to this report.

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