Wednesday 7 December 2016

Army called in as firefighters killed in battle against wildfires raging across US

Eric M. Johnson

Published 21/08/2015 | 08:05

Firefighters flee as the Twisp River fire advances unexpectedly near Twisp, Washington REUTERS/David Ryder
Firefighters flee as the Twisp River fire advances unexpectedly near Twisp, Washington REUTERS/David Ryder

U.S. crews battling a flurry of wildfires raging unchecked across the Pacific Northwest contended with high winds on Thursday, a day after three firefighters were killed and four others were injured in Washington state.

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Authorities late Thursday ordered the immediate evacuation of the small community of Tonasket, nestled along the bank of the Okanogan River in north-central Washington, impacting about 1,000 people.

On Wednesday, some 4,000 households in the riverfront towns of Twisp and Winthrop, in the foothills of the Cascade mountains about 75 miles (120 km) southwest of Tonasket, were also forced to flee the encroaching blaze.

The Twisp blaze is just one of more than 70 large wildfires or clusters of fires in several drought-stricken Western states, the bulk of them in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, California and Montana, the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise reported.

Firefighters attempt to protect a home and outbuildings from the Twisp River fire near Twisp, Washington August 20, 2015. 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. REUTERS/David Ryder
Firefighters attempt to protect a home and outbuildings from the Twisp River fire near Twisp, Washington August 20, 2015. 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. REUTERS/David Ryder
Flames rise near a tree on the ridge line above several homes on Twisp River Road just after midnight, Thursday, Aug. 20, 2015 in Twisp, Wash. Firefighters were in place trying to protect structures, and most residents were running irrigation sprinklers overnight in hopes of protecting their homes. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Firefighters flee as the Twisp River fire advances unexpectedly near Twisp, Washington August 20, 2015. 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. REUTERS/David Ryder
A wildfire burns behind a home on Twisp River Road, Thursday, Aug. 20, 2015 in Twisp, Wash. Authorities on Wednesday afternoon urged people in the north-central Washington town to evacuate because of a fast-moving wildfire. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
A firefighter, covered in fire retardant dropped from an airplane, exits the forest while battling the Twisp River fire near Twisp, Washington August 20, 2015. 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. REUTERS/David Ryder
Firefighters stand on a fire engine while battling the Twisp River fire near Twisp, Washington August 20, 2015. 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. REUTERS/David Ryder
Fire consumes an outbuilding near a home during the Twisp River fire near Twisp, Washington August 20, 2015. 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. REUTERS/David Ryder
Firefighters stand next to large flames on a hillside along Twisp River Road in Twisp, Wash., Thursday, Aug. 20, 2015. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Flames begin to consume structures during the Twisp River fire near Twisp, Washington August 20, 2015. 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. REUTERS/David Ryder
Firefighters attempt to protect a home and outbuildings from the Twisp River fire near Twisp, Washington August 20, 2015. 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. REUTERS/David Ryder
A sign offering free meals for people evacuated due to the Okanogan Complex Fire is pictured at a church in Omak, Washington, August 20, 2015. Crews battling a flurry of wildfires raging unchecked across the Pacific Northwest contended with high winds on Thursday, a day after three firefighters were killed and four others were injured in Washington state. REUTERS/Jason Redmond
A Lake Roesiger firefighter sprays a flareup during the Okanogan Complex Fire in Riverside, Washington, August 20, 2015. Crews battling a flurry of wildfires raging unchecked across the Pacific Northwest contended with high winds on Thursday, a day after three firefighters were killed and four others were injured in Washington state. REUTERS/Jason Redmond
Flames kick up beside a road as firefighters respond to the flare-up Thursday, Aug. 20, 2015, in Twisp, Wash, a day after three firefighters were killed fighting a wildfire near the town. Authorities said the firefighters died after their vehicle crashed and was apparently caught by a "hellstorm" of flames as they battled a blaze in Washington state. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
Lake Roesiger firefighters keep an eye on flareups during the Okanogan Complex Fire in Riverside, Washington, August 20, 2015. Crews battling a flurry of wildfires raging unchecked across the Pacific Northwest contended with high winds on Thursday, a day after three firefighters were killed and four others were injured in Washington state. REUTERS/Jason Redmond

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

The fires have stretched civilian firefighting resources, prompting authorities to call the U.S. Army and Canadian crews to help, as well as mobilize personnel from Australia and New Zealand for the first time since 2008. Seventy-one fire managers and specialists from those two countries were due to arrive in Idaho on Aug. 23.

U.S. wildland blazes have claimed the lives of at least 13 firefighters and support personnel so far this year, four more than died in the line of duty during all of 2014, the interagency fire center said.

President Barack Obama has directed his administration to consult with local and state officials while the threat persists.

ERRATIC WINDS COMPLICATE EFFORTS

The Twisp blaze has proven the deadliest. Three U.S. Forest Service firefighters in an engine crew died on Wednesday while battling the flames, which overtook their position after they were involved in a vehicle accident, Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers said.

Among the dead was Thomas Zbyszewski, a physics major and actor at Whitman College in southeastern Washington. Four other firefighters were injured, one of them hospitalized in critical condition with burns over 60 percent of his body.

The Twisp-area fire, part of a larger cluster of fires dubbed the Okanogan Complex, has burnt 7,873 acres (3,194 hectares) of rural brush and dry timber about 115 miles (185 km) northeast of Seattle since erupting on Wednesday, said Rick Scriven, a spokesman authorized to speak about the blaze.

As of late Thursday afternoon, crews had yet to establish firm containment lines around the blaze, Scriven said, adding that suppression efforts across the Northwest had been complicated by "sporadic and erratic winds."

The blaze near Twisp was burning in Okanogan County, the same area impacted by last July's massive Carlton Complex fire, the state's largest on record, which destroyed about 300 homes as it blackened 250,000 acres (100,000 hectares).

About 50 miles (80 km) south of Twisp, the so-called First Creek fire was posing a renewed threat to populated areas after engulfing more than 68,000 acres (27,000 hectares), with 39 homes and 28 outbuildings destroyed days ago near the resort town of Chelan, according to sheriff's spokesman Rich Magnussen.

The First Creek blaze jumped containment lines on Wednesday evening, triggering road closures and prompting authorities to extend evacuation orders to some 800 people, Magnussen said.

Speaking in Chelan, U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell told reporters his agency expects to exhaust its firefighting budget by early September but said necessary funds and assets would continue to be made available where needed.

The governors of Oregon and Idaho joined Washington state in calling up state National Guard troops backed by military aircraft to help combat blazes.

Reuters

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