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Western Wildfire Season Continues As Red-Flag Warnings Are Issued In 5 States

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WESTERN WILDFIRE SEASON
Clouds turn red from the setting sun where a wildfire burns nearby Monday evening, Sept. 10, 2012, near Wenatchee, Wash. Crews in central Washington and Wyoming worked Monday to protect homes from two of the many wildfires burning throughout the West as a destructive fire season stretches into September with no relief expected from the weather anytime soon. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson) | AP

WENATCHEE, Wash. (AP) — A haze of thick smoke formed Tuesday over vast swaths of the West as wildfires forced more residents to flee their homes in several states.

Fire officials reported seven homes were destroyed and hundreds of people were evacuated near Casper, Wyo., where a wildfire has burned across almost 24 square miles. In western Montana, fire crews said there was no containment in sight for a blaze that has prompted an evacuation order for 400 houses west of Hamilton.

With winds dying down, fire crews in eastern Washington were hopeful they could gain ground on dozens of fires sparked by weekend lightning storms. But more evacuation orders were issued Tuesday as a wildfire continued to move in the hills west of Wenatchee, a fruit capital on the banks of the Columbia River.

More than 150 homes were evacuated due to the fire burning about 140 miles east of Seattle.

About 160 firefighters from across the state gathered to help fight the blaze, which covered 1,000 acres. Resident Shannon Grosdidier and her four daughters delivered oatmeal cookies to several stationed at the end of her street Monday night.

"The wind has died down, which is good," she said. "But I've got the photo albums in the car and our overnight bags packed."

Only a shed has been lost near Wenatchee, and no injuries have been reported at what appeared to be the most-threatening of numerous wildfires in the state that were sparked by lightning Saturday.

In Montana, Sawtooth Fire spokesman Gregg DeNitto with the U.S. Forest Service said there was no word on when residents there might be allowed to return. The fire exploded over the past two days from just over 1 square mile to more than 6, although no houses were reported lost.

DeNitto said most threatened houses were still a half-mile to a mile from the fire's edge.

An estimated 1,000 people live within the evacuated area, although Ravalli County Commissioner Suzy Foss said not all of them left. Of those who fled, most were staying with friends, relatives or acquaintances, Foss said. Only a couple of residents spent the night at a Red Cross shelter set up in Hamilton for evacuees, DeNitto said.

Firefighters got help from the weather in Wyoming, where cooler temperatures and calmer winds bought time to put more people and equipment into action around two large fires.

As many as 750 homes were threatened by the large wildfire near Casper. Some 400 people were evacuated from 150 homes.

Firefighters on Tuesday planned to deploy more than a dozen aircraft against the blaze, including two air tankers and seven helicopters.

In central Oregon, hazardous smoke settled in Sisters for about six hours Tuesday morning as crews battled a forest fire burning on about 4,300 acres southwest of town. Sisters has about 2,000 residents and is a center for tourists and outdoor recreation.

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality said atmospheric conditions — a temperature inversion — could mean poor air quality in the mornings through Saturday.

The fire began Sunday in the Three Sisters Wilderness area. Residents of a subdivision west of Sisters have been warned that they might have to evacuate, but the fire has not yet advanced on populated areas.

Blazes have scorched more than 8.1 million acres across the West so far this year, up from the 10-year average of 6.1 million acres, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

In Utah, more than 100 property owners filed a lawsuit Tuesday in state district court blaming a utility for one of the state's largest wildfires this year.

The lawsuit against Rocky Mountain Power alleges arcing between power transmission lines sparked the 75-square-mile Wood Hollow Fire, which destroyed 52 cabins or houses in central Utah and left one man dead in June.

Rocky Mountain Power told The Associated Press the lawsuit is unnecessary because the utility is pursuing out-of-court settlements with dozens of families. The company has admitted no fault.

Rocky Mountain Power initially blamed a thief who stripped protective cooper wire from one of its transmission poles. However, a state fire investigator determined the ground wire wasn't designed to absorb a powerful arc between separate high-voltage lines.

Other blazes burning across the West include:

— The Horsethief Canyon Fire, which has burned about 4 square miles south of the resort town of Jackson, Wyo. Firefighters were working to protect the town and the Jackson Hole valley's main communications towers from the blaze. About 1,000 residents have been warned to be prepared to leave in case the blaze gets too close. The fire was 10 percent contained Tuesday.

— The Millie Fire, burning 20 miles south of Bozeman, Mont. The fire continued to threaten the city's water supply and 10 commercial buildings. Fire spokeswoman Jennifer Myslivy said the flames were stopped for now at the top of a ridge over South Cottonwood Canyon, sparing adjacent areas that serve as Bozeman's watershed.

— As many as 80 fires sparked by lightning Saturday along the east slopes of the Cascades in Washington state. Fifty-four homes were evacuated near Cashmere in front of a wildfire that has burned about 300 acres. Fire spokeswoman Connie Mehmel said the Cashmere fire was burning near other fires west of Wenatchee, but they were not expected to merge.

Another blaze north of Entiat forced the evacuation of 19 homes. And Douglas County Emergency Management told KREM-TV (http://is.gd/yeszEM) a wildfire destroyed a ranch home near Grand Coulee.

Another fire southwest of Creston grew to 18,000 acres. No homes were lost, but several outbuildings were believed to have burned.

— A wildfire in a rugged area of the San Gabriel Mountains northeast of Los Angeles, which was 91 percent contained Tuesday after burning 6½ square miles. The fire broke out over Labor Day weekend, sending thousands of visitors from the Angeles National Forest. A few dozen residents had to evacuate but were allowed to return late last week.

___

Associated Press writers Matthew Brown in Billings, Mont., and Mead Gruver in Cheyenne, Wyo., contributed to this report.

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