Firefighters face high winds stoking deadly blazes in U.S. Northwest

Reuters News
Posted: Aug 20, 2015 4:25 PM

By Eric M. Johnson

SEATTLE (Reuters) - Crews battling a flurry of wildfires raging unchecked in the Pacific Northwest braced on Thursday for high winds forecast in the region a day after three firefighters were killed and four others were injured in Washington state.

Authorities late on Wednesday ordered the evacuation of about 4,000 homes threatened by fire in the riverfront towns of Twisp and Winthrop in the Methow Valley, nestled in the foothills of the Cascade mountains in north-central Washington.

The so-called Twisp River fire has roared through 16,000 acres (6,475 hectares) of rural brush and dry timber about 115 miles (185 km) northeast of Seattle since erupting on Wednesday.

As of Thursday morning, fire crews had yet to establish any firm lines of containment around the blaze, according to the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center.

The agency said wildfire suppression efforts in the Northwest as a whole would be complicated by "a windy day across much of eastern Washington and northern portions of eastern Oregon."

The blaze near Twisp was one of more than 70 large wildfires or clusters of fires under full-scale attack in several Western states, the bulk of them in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, California and Montana, the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise reported. Those fires have collectively scorched some 1.3 million acres (5,260 square kilometers) in the drought-parched region.

The Twisp River blaze has also proven the deadliest. Three U.S. Forest Service firefighters perished on Wednesday while engaged in an initial attack on the flames, which overtook their position after they were involved in a vehicle accident, Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers said. Four other firefighters were injured in the incident, he said.

About 50 miles (80 km) to the south, a 68,465-acre (27,706-hectare) fire has destroyed 39 homes and 28 outbuildings in an area around the resort town of Chelan, said Rich Magnussen, spokesman for emergency management authorities in Chelan County.

The First Creek fire jumped containment lines on Wednesday evening, triggering evacuation orders and road closures overnight. Some 800 people in the county have been ordered out of their homes, Magnussen said.

Dozens more homes have been reduced to ruins in Idaho and Oregon in recent days.

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The widespread conflagrations have stretched civilian firefighting resources thin, prompting authorities to call in help from the U.S. Army and Canadian crews. President Barack Obama has directed his administration to liaise with local and state officials as the threat persists.

Oregon Governor Kate Brown toured the fire zone in her state on Wednesday and along with Idaho Governor C.L. "Butch" Otter called up state National Guard troops backed by military aircraft to help combat blazes in their respective states.

In California, suffering its worst drought on record, about 2,500 people were forced to flee Christian summer camps east of Fresno at Hume Lake as the so-called Rough Fire crossed Highway 180, officials said.

(Writing and additional reporting by Curtis Skinner from San Francisco; Editing by Steve Gorman and Eric Walsh)