Large wildfires out West drain firefighting resources

Active-duty military members have been called upon to help in the effort across several Western states.

Ted S. Warren/AP
Timber burns in the First Creek fire near lakeside structures on the western shore of Lake Chelan late Monday, Aug. 17, 2015, near Chelan, Wash.

Wildfires destroying homes around this Cascade Mountain resort town are helping stretch firefighting resources to the point that authorities activated the military and sought international aid to beat back scores of blazes burning uncontrolled throughout the dry West.

"Nationally, the system is pretty tapped," said Rob Allen, the deputy incident commander for the fires around Chelan. "Everything is being used right now, so competition for resources is fierce."

So much so that the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise called in 200 active-duty military troops to help contain roughly 95 Western wildfires. It's the first time the agency has mobilized the military for fire suppression efforts since 2006.

Fire managers at the center are able to activate military help in the busiest wildfire years, when there aren't enough national civilian firefighting teams to adequately suppress the blazes. The military is available thanks to a 1975 agreement between the Defense, Interior and Agriculture departments.

The help can be crucial in particularly active years like this one, when the center's firefighting teams and equipment are fighting hundreds of fires across the West. In the last two weeks alone, more than 1,500 square miles have burned in the Lower 48 states, center spokesman Ken Frederick said.

"It's like the fire season gas pedal has been pushed to the floor in a really short period of time, and that's stressed our resources," Frederick said. "And that's got us relying on help from resources we don't normally use."

More than 1,000 people battled the massive fires near Chelan that have burned more than 155 square miles and about 75 homes. They were just some of the huge blazes raging in the West.

A lightning-sparked fire in the Malheur National Forest has grown to 63 square miles and destroyed at least 26 houses. An additional 500 structures are threatened by the flames near John Day.

In the Northern Rockies, so many wildfires have ignited this month that officials are letting some that might be suppressed under normal circumstances burn because manpower and equipment are committed elsewhere.

The area had been experiencing a normal fire season until last week, when a combination of drought, high temperatures and lightning-packed storms created new blazes across western Montana and Idaho.

There were at least 95 known fires burning in the two states as of Tuesday, about 30 of them considered large, according to the Northern Rockies Coordination Center in Missoula.

That included a group of fires in northern Idaho that have scorched 90 square miles and destroyed 42 homes in the last several days, as well as a wildfire in the western part of the state that led about 120 residents to evacuate and others to prepare to flee near McCall.

Even so, the fires burning in the Pacific Northwest take priority when it comes to allocating pinched resources.

"There's a lot of fire on the landscape, not only here, but in California, Washington, Oregon, Colorado and elsewhere," said Ken Schmid, chair of the Northern Rockies Coordinating Group.

California is doing well in terms of resources, despite a pair of massive blazes in the north. Officials prepared for a drought-fueled fire season by bringing in several hundred more firefighters than in previous years, officials have said.

In Chelan, about 180 miles east of Seattle, flames burned through grass, brush and timber. Air tankers established lines to keep the flames from reaching downtown and utility workers were replacing burned power poles and inspecting wires.

Allen, the deputy incident commander, said the firefighters sleep in the woods near this central Washington town, get up every morning and work a full day.

"It's hot, it's dirty," said Allen, who usually works for the Bureau of Lang Management in Alaska. He said authorities were looking for all the resources they could muster.

"The military has been activated. We have National Guard here to help us out, the Canadians have lent recourses that have come south of the border, we are talking to New Zealand and Australia," Allen said.

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