Western Wildfires: Growing Flames Charge Across Dry States

Fires continue to rage across the Pacific Northwest

By Justin Franz

Wildfires picked up their destructive pace across the drought-choked West on Friday, leading residents to flee their homes and authorities to scramble for resources to beat back the flames.

Blazes in Washington state that killed three firefighters and injured four others have exploded in size, while other fires charged toward populated areas in several states amid the threat of windy weather.

 

WASHINGTON

Massive wildfires expanding across arid Washington state have so overtaxed firefighters that the federal government declared an emergency and state officials took the unprecedented step of seeking volunteers to help fight the flames.

The state Department of Natural Resources said it would review civilians’ offers to help and send them where they would be most useful. Volunteers could start applying Friday, the same day President Barack Obama authorized the federal government to coordinate disaster relief efforts.

It is the first time the state has asked for volunteers as an explosive fire season led to the deaths of three firefighters and the evacuation of entire towns. At least 10 blazes were burning in north-central Washington’s Okanogan County alone, where the complex of blazes that killed the firefighters grew by more than 100 square miles in a day.

The group of fires had charred just over 252 square miles by Friday, creating a situation too chaotic to even track how many homes had burned.

As conditions worsened, emergency officials ordered evacuations in Okanogan, with 2,500 residents, as well as Tonasket, a community of 1,000 people, and its surrounding area.

IDAHO

Evacuations have been ordered in northern Idaho as a group of wildfires that has already destroyed 42 homes threatened more residences Friday despite nearly 800 firefighters trying to beat back the flames.

Idaho had 17 large fires burning Friday, the most in the nation.

Fire managers told residents near the town of Weippe late Thursday to flee the fires that have scorched 63 square miles of mostly timber and are partially contained. A local high school is being used to shelter evacuees.

In west-central Idaho, fire managers say winds expected Friday could cause an 11-square-mile wildfire to grow significantly despite fire lines built by some 460 firefighters.

U.S. Highway 95 could be closed depending on fire activity.

OREGON

Firefighters faced gusty conditions Friday as they battled two new wildfires that threatened dozens of homes and a school in eastern Oregon.

Some of the 900 people who had been battling another fire that destroyed 36 homes east of Portland were diverted to fight one of the new fires further east near Prairie City. Homeowners were put on evacuation alert ahead of hotter weather expected over the weekend.

Gov. Kate Brown sent crews from safe areas of the state to protect property threatened by the other new blaze in the remote northeastern corner of Oregon. The fire threatened more than 100 homes and a school.

Meanwhile, officials started getting some control over a blaze near John Day that began Aug. 12 and has scorched almost 100 square miles. But least 700 structures are threatened, and evacuation orders persist.

CALIFORNIA

More than 12,000 firefighters are battling 17 wildfires across California, including a quick-moving blaze in a popular northern recreational area that has led most of a church camp to evacuate.

The fire burning for nearly three weeks on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada grew to 60 square miles Friday near Kings Canyon National Park and was bearing down on popular Hume Lake.

The fire is moving toward the lake so quickly that the incident command post was moved Thursday night from the lake to the ranger station in the Sequoia National Forest.

More than 2,500 campers, hikers, employees and residents have been evacuated from the area this week.

MONTANA

Officials are concerned that high winds and possible thunderstorms expected Friday in western Montana could exacerbate a wildfire approaching a town near Glacier National Park that could endanger 200 structures.

The conditions could force some 100 residents of Essex to evacuate, fire information officer Sonja Hartmann said. A nearby 7-mile stretch of highway and rail corridor remains closed.

West of Essex near the Idaho border, residents of about 50 homes have been ordered to leave and those in neighboring areas were told to get ready to flee, officials said.

Wildfire smoke is plaguing western Montana and had spread Friday to the eastern part of the state, prompting air quality warnings.

COLORADO

Smoke from large Western wildfires has led Colorado officials to expand a health advisory to the northern half of the state Friday.

The heavily populated Denver-Fort Collins area was included in the advisory, along with cities ranging from Grand Junction, near the state’s western border, to Julesberg, in the northeast corner.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment cautioned people with respiratory or heart problems to stay indoors if smoke is heavy.

The National Weather Service warned that wildfire danger was high in northwest Colorado because of gusty winds, low humidity and dry vegetation. Crews were monitoring two small lightning-caused wildfires.

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