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Idaho wildfire forces evacuation of homes, ranches

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By Laura Zuckerman

SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - A 15,000-acre wildfire in forested peaks in Idaho has forced the evacuation of 100 people and halted construction work on a planned strategic metal mine, officials said on Wednesday.

Nearly 600 firefighters battled the lightning-caused blaze, which has burned largely unchecked for two weeks in steep, rugged terrain littered with beetle-killed lodgepole pines in the Salmon-Challis National Forest in east-central Idaho.

Salmon, Idaho, a town of 3,100 people, lies to the northeast of the blaze.

Fire crews on Wednesday worked to aid ranchers removing cattle from grazing allotments threatened by the blaze as some property owners scrambled to protect structures and truck out belongings.

"I've been up all night; it's been a frustrating experience," said Alison Steen, whose family owns acreage wedged between the Salmon River and the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness.

The evacuation centered on outlying cabins, a U.S. Forest Service field office and the Idaho Cobalt Project, a mine due next year to begin yielding cobalt, a metal in high demand for rechargeable hybrid car batteries, jet turbines and artificial hips.

The blaze has been burning since August 25. But strong winds, high temperatures and record-low humidity have caused the fire to flare up in recent days, producing towering flames, falling ash and columns of smoke that have blanketed portions of three counties across more than 150 miles.

Salmon resident Rachael Nafus learned on Wednesday that the creek-side cabin she and her husband retreat to on weekends was under threat.

"Of course we're worried," she said. "We've been working on that property for five years."

Forest Service spokeswoman Jesse Bender said the decision to evacuate the area starting on Tuesday night was tied to limited access along winding mountain roadways "that could easily be compromised by just a little more fire movement."

Crews on Wednesday used bulldozers to establish firebreaks by clearing brush and debris on the perimeter of the so-called Salt fire. Fire bosses hope to stop the advance of flames toward dozens of houses at Williams Lake, a small mountain resort south of Salmon.

The blaze, one of five scorching tens of thousands of acres in the Salmon-Challis forest and portions of the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, has closed off swathes of backcountry favored by recreationists and hunters.

(Editing by Steve Gorman and Cynthia Johnston)