SPOKANE, Wash. — As Washington state’s wildfires burned into the record books Monday, calls for help were answered from far and near.
Fire managers from New Zealand and Australia arrived to contribute to a ground campaign led by firefighters from across the West and augmented by U.S. soldiers.
The flames that claimed the lives of three firefighters, injured four others and burned 200 homes also inspired an outpouring of volunteers who have been invited for the first time in state history to help battle the blazes.
This summer’s fire response across the West has been overwhelmed by destructive blazes tearing through the tinder-dry region.
The biggest fire burning Monday was in Okanogan County on the Canadian border, where a group of five fires raging out of control became the largest in state history, scorching more than 400 square miles, fire spokesman Rick Isaacson said.
Lightning-sparked fires broke the state record, surpassing blazes that destroyed more than 300 homes in the same county last year.
“I’d like to set some different records,” Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers said.
The U.S. is in the midst of one of its worst fire seasons on record with some 11,600 square miles scorched so far. It’s only the sixth-worst going back to 1960, but it’s the most acreage burned by this date in a decade, so the ranking is sure to rise.
“It’s only Aug. 24th,” Isaacson said. “In our district we could see this go clear to the first of November.”
Thirteen firefighters have died nationwide this year, including the three in Washington state who were killed when they tried to escape the fire in a vehicle, crashed and were overrun by flames.
So many fires are burning in the state that managers are taking extreme measures, summoning help from Down Under and 200 U.S. troops from a base in Tacoma in the first such use of active-duty soldiers in nine years.
Jim Whittington, a Bureau of Land Management spokesman in Portland, Oregon, said military assets cannot be used against wildfires until all civilian resources are deployed.
Since 1987, active duty military personnel have been mobilized to serve as wildland firefighters a total of 35 times. The last time was in 2006.
Since then, it has not been necessary to ask for military assistance until this fire season, Forest Service officials said.
Nearly 4,000 volunteers also answered the state’s call for help, far more than will be accepted, said state Department of Natural Resources spokesman Joe Smillie.
The state is looking for former firefighters or heavy equipment operators who can bulldoze fire lines to corral the blazes and keep them from spreading in mountainous, timber-covered areas. So far, about 200 people with the right experience have been cleared to work.
The 70 firefighters from Australia and New Zealand who arrived at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, were being outfitted to fill a critical shortage of mid-level fire managers such as equipment bosses, strike team leaders and supervisors.
The Southern Hemisphere nations have been partners with the U.S. for more than 50 years, able to lend out firefighters because the severest part of their fire seasons occur at opposite times of the year. The last time the U.S. asked for their help was 2008, with 50 firefighters arriving. The U.S. sent firefighters abroad in 2007.
Chris Arnol, international liaison for Australia and New Zealand firefighters, said at a news conference in Boise the firefighters will be ready for the mountainous terrain in the Pacific Northwest.
Warren Heslip, a 47-year-old firefighter from Southland, New Zealand, said the new arrivals were ready for the conditions.
“We’re used to tall timber and steep territory,” he said.
Costs for the international firefighters will be paid by the agency they’re assigned to, officials said, though no estimate was yet available.
In Southern California, crews used snow-making cannons to blow water, and planes dropped fire retardant on a 100-acre wildfire burning near the popular Snow Summit ski resort in Big Bear Lake. They were able to build a perimeter halfway around the blaze, but hundreds of homes remained threatened in the mountainous area about 100 miles east of Los Angeles.
In Montana, firefighters traveled by rail to the edge of a thick forest to build fuel breaks to slow or stop a wildfire creeping toward a major rail line and U.S. Highway 2 on Glacier National Park’s southern boundary.
Firefighters had been limited to attacking the blaze by air because the steep, dense terrain left few escape options for ground crews if the fire that has burned about a square mile suddenly shifted.
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.