Idaho firefighter killed by falling tree at wildfire

BOISE, Idaho (AP) A 20-year-old U.S. Forest Service firefighter died after she was struck by a falling tree in north-central Idaho, highlighting the dangerous job crews face as at least a dozen blazes continue to burn across the state.

And in central Idaho, a remote community near the Salmon River has been evacuated, though some of its residents are refusing to leave their homes.

Anne Veseth, from Moscow, died Sunday while helping extinguish the 43-acre Steep Corner fire near Orofino. She was killed when a tree fell and crashed into another tree, causing it to topple, too.

"The Forest Service is devastated by the loss of one of our own," said Forest Supervisor Rick Brazell, adding that his agency is investigating the fatal incident. "We ask the public to join us in keeping the family in their thoughts and prayers."

This was Veseth's second season as a firefighter. Her older brother is also a wildland firefighter in Idaho.

Veseth was a graduate of Moscow High School and a student at Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston, where she studied auto mechanics.

Two years ago, she was featured in a Lewiston Tribune story when she graduated from high school. In the article, Veseth spoke of her father's death in 2003 following an accident, describing how that family tragedy changed her life.

"It made me appreciate who I have in my life, while I have them," Veseth told the newspaper in June 2010. "It made me realize life is short."

Her family asked for privacy. A memorial service is set for Saturday at St. Mary's Catholic Church, in Moscow.

"The family appreciates all the prayers and concern," according to a statement provided to the media.

In southern Idaho, some residents of the small town of Hansen were allowed to return home. They'd been ordered to leave late last week as flames from the multiple-blaze Minidoka Complex torched sagebrush and grass.

Fire managers announced Monday morning that the evacuation order was lifted after the fire nearest the homes was declared 57 percent contained.

So far, the Minidoka Complex has burned more than 144 square miles of land in southern Idaho. That fire is due to be completely contained by next Monday, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise.

In many areas of the state, the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality is advising people with respiratory or heart disease, the elderly and children to remain indoors. The smoke that's clogged the skies is causing some of the worst summertime air quality since Idaho's last heavy fire year in 2007.

However, in Boise, the state's most-populous city with some 500,000 people including the surrounding suburbs, it wasn't smoke from homegrown blazes that was obscuring the foothills just a few miles from downtown completely from view.

Instead, meteorologists say weather patterns are bringing in smoke from blazes in California and Oregon to southeastern Idaho.

"Most of the smoke is from out of state," said Mike Toole, the regional air shed coordinator at the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality, on Monday.

The air quality has been similarly poor in the mountain towns of Stanley and Ketchum in central Idaho.

There, smoke from the lightning-caused Halstead blaze that's torched 79 square miles of the Sawtooth National Recreation area, as well as the 46-square-mile Trinity Ridge fire on the Boise National Forest, has been trapped in the valleys by an inversion. An inversion occurs when cold air is trapped in valleys by a layer of warmer air at higher altitudes.

Smoke-choked communities get relief when these unhealthy inversions lift, but fire officials say that's a double-edged sword since rising temperatures, gusty winds and falling humidity are often accompanied by increased fire activity.

"One of the real worrisome factors is spotting, when embers come up and float into the sky," Dave Olson, a spokesman for the Boise National Forest, said Monday. "When they land, there's a 100 percent probability they'll ignite" given the dry conditions and high temperatures.

On the Salmon-Challis National Forest, two new lightning-caused fires were detected near the Halstead blaze, including the small Lost Packer Lake Fire burning in tree crowns within the borders of the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness.

Near the 10-square-mile Mustang Complex fire law enforcement officials in Lemhi County have evacuated the Colson Creek community near the Salmon River as flames moved to within roughly a mile of their homes.

A number of residents have refused to leave this remote hamlet. Some are concerned that they wouldn't be allowed to return after the Lemhi County Sheriff's Office closed stretches of a road that parallels the river.

"Our firefighters are doing a burnout operation, to try to slowly bring the fire down to the river," said Salmon-Challis National Forest spokeswoman Karen Dunlap. "It got a little hot and dry quicker than they thought this afternoon, so they decided to shut down the road for safety."