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More Than 875K Acres Burning Across The Northwest

August 21, 2015

President Obama declared a state of emergency Friday for Washington state, where several wildfires are burning uncontained.

More than 875,000 acres are now burning across the Pacific Northwest, as more than 9,200 firefighters and support personnel are working to protect homes and save lives.

Currently, the top fire in the region is the Okanogan Complex, burning in north central Washington. Fire officials said mandatory evacuations are in place for the town of Tonasket, where about 1,000 people live.

Late Wednesday, three firefighters died when flames overtook their vehicle near the town of Twisp, Washington, after they were in an apparent car accident.

The U.S. Forest Service identified the firefighters Thursday as Richard Wheeler, 31, Tom Zbyszewski, 20, and Andrew Zajac, 26.

Daniel Lyon, 25, was also injured in the crash. He’s undergoing treatment at a hospital in Seattle and has burns on about 60 percent of his body, the hospital said in a statement.

The fire grew considerably overnight and now the winds are once again becoming a factor, said Rick Isaacson, the fire information officer for the Okanogan Complex Fire.

“It was calm first thing this morning,” he said during an interview Friday. “All of the sudden the wind came up. We had to dash outside and stake down our tents again because they were blowing away."

The fire’s incident command center may need to evacuate, he said.

The winds have helped clear some of the air, but, “you’re always smelling smoke,” he said.

“Last night you couldn’t hardly breathe trying to sleep,” Isaacson said.

Obama’s declaration allows for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate relief efforts, according to a White House release.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said the assistance will include trauma counseling, emergency power generation and resources to keep transmitters and other emergency equipment operating.

“This declaration is welcome news for the communities on the front lines battling the wildfires,” Inslee said in a statement. “With the high danger the firefighters are experiencing it is crucial we maintain our communications and power equipment and I appreciate the quick review of our request from our federal partners.”

A series of dry lightning storms beginning Aug. 13, sparked fires around the region. They were later fueled by high winds. 

A few human caused fires – like the County Line 2 Fire burning near Warm Springs, Oregon – added to a rapidly escalating situation.

Ever since, there haven’t been enough firefighters and aircraft to meet all of the requests from fire managers on the ground.

“I would say our resources are still limited and we’re utilizing what has been given us to the best, for the mission on the ground,” said Carol Connolly, with the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center in Portland.

Fire managers in Oregon and Washington have been competing with other fires burning in the northern Rockies and California.

This week, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown mobilized 125 National Guard members to help fight fires. In Washington, 200 active duty Army personnel from Joint Base Lewis McChord will also aid firefighters.

More than 70 fire line managers and specialists from Australia and New Zealand are expected to start arriving in Boise late Sunday for orientation before deploying to fires around the Northwest.

The Grizzly Bear Complex fire that’s burning in both Oregon and Washington grew to more than 48,000 acres Thursday.

“That fire nearly doubled in size yesterday,” said Connolly.  “It has prompted several evacuations in the area.”

High winds Thursday pushed the fire east affecting the town of Troy in far northeastern Oregon.

Three homes and 20 outbuildings burned, Connolly said. About 250 people were forced to evacuate, she said.

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The Wolverine Wildfire burns near the Holden Village, Washington. President Barack Obama declared a state of emergency in Washington as dry, hot weather conditions caused fires to spread early Thursday.