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`PARADISE’ IS DEVASTATED BY FIRES’ FURY

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Drive along the Entiat River and you still can find pockets of paradise, where ponderosa pines lean over sparkling creeks, their green branches singing with birds.

But heaven turns to hell up Mud Creek Road. A forest of black sticks rises from smoldering ground. Charred carcasses of cows lie rotting in the 90-degree heat, and a deadly silence hangs in the air."I can't tell you what a beautiful little place this was here," Joe Kelly said Saturday, surveying what remained of his 40-acre spread after a wildfire that swept through on Wednesday.

His log cabin was spared, wetted down by firefighters' hoses. But a lilac bush by the back porch was baked to a crisp and the barn, guest cabin and a hillside of pines were destroyed.

"This canyon was filled with structures," he said. "Some of them burned, and some of them didn't. Why?"

The question echoes across the West, where extreme drought and record temperatures are helping fan blazes to a fury that surprises even veteran firefighters. With more hot, dry weather predicted for August, many nervous residents search the smoke-filled sky and wonder if they'll be next in the fire's path.

Wildfires already have blackened 1.9 million acres nationwide this year as of Sunday, more than burned all last year, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. Most of that acreage is in the West, where the fire season can stretch into October.

"This has the potential for being one of the most critical fire seasons we've ever had," said fire center spokesman Arnold Hartigan. "It's not that any particular fire is so big. It's just that there are so many, and they're so widespread."

The fire that roared through Kelly's property, the so-called Tyee Complex of fires, was the largest of 26 major fires being battled Sunday by more than 14,000 firefighters in eight Western states, according to the fire center.

The Tyee, the nation's biggest active fire, had charred more than 90,000 acres of the forested eastern slopes of the Cascade Range and burned 19 homes near the towns of Chelan and Entiat.

A fast-spreading fire about 20 miles to the southwest, the Hatchery Creek Complex, had burned about 19,000 acres and destroyed 18 structures, mostly homes, near the Bavarian-theme tourist town of Leavenworth.

Another blaze had incinerated grass and crops on 26,000 acres astride the Idaho-Utah state line. Flames also confronted fire-fighters Sunday in parts of Oregon, Montana, Nevada, Wyoming and California.

"When it's this dry and the moisture in the fuels is so low, and when you throw in lightning and wind, you've got the recipe for lots and lots of fires. And that's what we've got," Hartiga said.

The National Weather Service's 30-day forecast is for above-normal temperatures and below-normal rainfall across most of the West.

For specific areas, the outlook is even worse. Forecasters use a measure called the Palmer drought index to gauge how fire-prone an area is. A reading of 4 is very moist, while anything below minus 4 is considered extreme drought. Central Washington is at minus 8.2, said weather service meteorologist Rick Ochoa.

It's one of the most volatile fire seasons ever observed in the West.

"This is some incredible fire behavior we're seeing," said Bob Walker, a fire-behavior analyst with the U.S. Forest Service who drove his pickup up the Entiat River Road on Saturday.

Walker and others here have seen fire whirls, tornadoes of flame that yank whole trees into the clouds. They've watched horizontal-roll vortices, where superheated air rises so violently that there's not enough time for complete combustion and the flames do barrel rolls out across the landscape.

Walker makes daily predictions for firefighters based down the valley in Entiat. They listen closely, mindful of the 12 firefighters who died July 6 near Glenwood Springs, Colo., overtaken by wind-whipped flames on Storm King Mountain.

Walker won't guarantee his accuracy.

"This environment is not like a laboratory," he said. "Nobody will ever get a 100 percent score in this job. There are just too many unpredictable combinations."

Joe Kelly understands.

"People think we can manipulate and dominate nature because we're so good at building bridges and roads and things," he said. "But when a fire this big gets started, you can't stop it."