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Resources Scarce as Northwest Wildfires Grow in Numbers

August 20, 2015

There’s a large map of Oregon and Washington that hangs on the wall inside the dispatch center at the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center (NWCC) in Portland.

The agency helps manage wildfires and it uses the map to track where they’re burning and the resources dedicated to each fire. A quick glace at the map makes it pretty clear there's a lot going on.

“It’s an incredibly busy time," said Koshare Eagle, a spokeswoman for the agency.   

Wildfires burning in the Pacific Northwest have exploded from just 85,000 acres a week ago to more than 625,000 acres burning today. Fires are currently threatening more than 10,000 homes and other structures. Three firefighters died Wednesday battling a blaze in north Washington, officials said.

With so much fire, there’s more demand for firefighting equipment and personnel than there are resources available. Eagle said right now there are 37 large fires that are uncontained burning in Oregon and Washington. Many of the requests for resources to help fight those fires come though the dispatch center.

“You have different people focusing on crews, and aircraft and equipment and supplies to try and get the resources that the fires have requested ... so that they can be delivered to the fires that need them,” Eagle said.

Oregon’s Canyon Creek Complex fire burning near John Day is the nation’s top fire fighting priority. The second is Washington’s Chelan Complex fire north of Wenatchee.

Both have had to compete for hotshot crews and aircraft with aggressive fires burning in Northern California and the northern Rockies.

Eagle said for the last week fire officials haven’t had enough resources.

“Nationally and regionally there’s more demand for trained and qualified fire crews and for experienced fire line leaders and supervisors than we’re currently able to fill,” Eagle said.

On Wednesday morning, she said there were 170 requests nationwide for fire crews -- but only four were available.

When resources get tight, Eagle said, managers focus on fires that threaten life, communities and infrastructure.

With fire resources stretched thin, officials are now looking for ways to get more crews on the ground.

Ken Frederick, with the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, said 200 active duty Army personal from Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington are undergoing several days of training before hitting the fire lines later this week.

“The important thing about these soldiers is that they will take up the less complex work on a fire and free up a couple of hundred other, more experienced, trained fire firefighters who can take up some of those complex jobs," he said Wednesday.

Efforts are also under way to bring in experienced fire line supervisors from Canada and Australia to aid in firefighting efforts. That happened back in 2006.

Officials said the biggest concern right now is the hot weather. And Thursday is forecast to be windy, which means that fires that are already large could grow even bigger.

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The dispatch center at the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center in Portland, Ore. handles requests from fire managers around the Pacific Northwest seeking air support and hotshot crews.

Conrad Wilson