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Fire bosses stretch resources as flames keep spreading

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LAVA HOT SPRINGS, Idaho (AP) — The rash of fires this summer prompted a visit from Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck. He was at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise meeting with strategists before going out on the fire lines.

"This is not something that's going to be over next week," Dombeck said.

Fire bosses brought in heavy air support Wednesday to attack wildfire burning in the steep rugged terrain of southeastern Idaho as firefighting resources were stretched even tighter across the West and officials considered asking for help from other countries.

"Firefighting resources are stretched thin," Undersecretary of Agriculture James Lyons said. "We may be requesting resources from other countries."

Spokeswoman Sky Huffaker said the Sikorsky helicopters capable of dumping 1,000 gallons of water took over for hand crews and bulldozers that can no longer get into the area where the head of the 8,300-acre Moonshine fire in southeastern Idaho was burning.

By Wednesday night, 70 percent of the fire was contained.

Moonshine is part of a complex of 11 fires that has already covered nearly 200,000 acres, the nation's largest group of fires. The complex was only 20 percent contained, but crews had managed to check the flames that had threatened houses near the resort community of Lava Hot Springs.

Dana and Tom Prather were among those chased from their Moose Hollow homes last weekend for several hours before the danger finally passed. On Wednesday, helicopters circled overhead, dumping water on remaining hotspots.

"Without the air support they would have been had," Tom Prather said. "When it topped that ridge and everybody was here, there was even a little fear in the local sheriff. It looked pretty ugly. Even when it was a mile and a half away, it made you want to move."

And four dozen major fires were still burning, covering more than 700,000 acres in 10 Western states. Forest Service officials said new fires were igniting in the hot, dry weather punctuated repeatedly by dry lightning. One storm ignited 200 new fires in Montana on Tuesday alone, they said.

A half dozen major fires were burning in central Idaho, where a battalion of soldiers from Fort Hood, Texas, was completing training for deployment on the 15,562-acre Burgdorf Junction fire just south of the main Salmon River. Although 43 percent contained, the front of the fire continued burning slowly toward the small backcountry community of Warren about two miles east.

"When it flares up, you can see the flames," said Shannon Nealey, who works at the Winter Inn where business has become nonexistent.

As smoke again filled the valley, fire bosses met with the 30 residents Wednesday afternoon to reassure them that everything was being done to protect them and their property. Water tankers were stationed in the town as a precaution. Once the 600 soldiers finish training, the manpower on that fire will double.

"Everybody is pretty confident here," said, Betty Cavner, who owns the Back Country Bed and Breakfast. "Unless something takes a turn for the worse, I can't foresee anything drastic happening."

The highway across Lost Trail Pass on the Idaho-Montana border remained closed by fires still threatening a ski resort, and flames from a fire on the high desert shut down the southbound lanes of I-15 25 miles north of the Utah border for several hours before sunrise on Wednesday.

The country's biggest single blaze, the Clear Creek fire, grew to 95,000 acres Wednesday and continued to pose a threat to the Blackbird mine and the small town of Cobalt some 20 miles west of Salmon.

Water tankers were moved into the town, and crews protected some historic buildings in nearby ghost towns of Leesburg and California Bar with fire retardant material, Salmon-Challis National Forest spokesman Mark Van Every said. The oldest structure still standing in Leesburg was built in the 1870s.

A Marine battalion from Camp Pendleton, Calif., was scheduled to be deployed to the Clear Creek fire early next week.

"That's a tremendous asset for us to draw upon," National Fire Center spokesman Ed Waldapfel said. "It's just another resource for us to use on new fires."

The government was spending $15 million a day to support 20,000 civilian and military firefighters from 46 states and Canada.