Smoke blankets parts of Washington state as firefighters guard town from flames

Reuters News
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Posted: Aug 22, 2015 6:18 PM

By Alex Dobuzinskis

(Reuters) - Firefighters battling a group of fierce wildfires in central Washington state labored on Saturday to expand containment lines outside a lakeside resort town, as large blazes scorched dry land in other parts of the U.S. West.

The continuing fight against a complex of fires near the town of Chelan came a day after President Barack Obama signed a federal declaration of emergency for Washington state to coordinate relief efforts in 11 counties and several Indian reservations hard hit by wildfires.

When flames advanced late last week toward Chelan, a town of about 4,000 people, authorities evacuated many residents from the area. About 1,000 people remained evacuated on Saturday, but sheriff's deputies were escorting some residents to check on their properties, said Brian Lawatch, a fire information officer for the team fighting the blaze.

Heavy smoke hung over the central Washington state region, creating a visibility and breathing hazard for firefighters. They also had low humidity to worry about, with increased likelihood dry timber and grass would fuel the so-called Chelan Complex of blazes that officials say have burned over 86,000 acres (34,803 hectares) and are 35 percent contained.

With roughly 560 firefighters deployed against the fires, crews took advantage of light winds to extend containment lines west of the town center along Lake Chelan in the area of a yacht club and at a nearby ridge, officials said.

About 40 miles (64 km) northeast of Chelan, another group of blazes called the Okanogan Complex has burned more than 162,000 acres (65,559 hectares). The complex includes the so-called Twisp River fire, which killed three firefighters and injured four others on Wednesday night after forcing thousands of households to evacuate in the towns of Twisp and Winthrop.

The most badly hurt of the surviving firefighters remained in critical condition on Saturday at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, a day after undergoing surgery to treat his burns, Susan Gregg, a spokeswoman for the hospital, said in an email.

Washington state, while it has seen some of the West's most intense fire activity of the past week, is not alone in battling blazes.

At least 70 large wildfires have been raging during that time through several bone-dry Western states, including Oregon, Idaho, California and Montana, the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise reported.

More than 100 homes and dozens of outbuildings have been lost from those fires.

(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by James Dalgleish)