Across West, firefighters struggle against wildfires as temperatures soar

The Washington lieutenant governor and Oregon governor have declared states of emergency. Congress is beginning to mull legislation that could help deal with wildfires.

Marilyn Newton/AP
A wildfire fills the sky with smoke north and above Bordertown, Nev., July 15, 2014.

As temperatures soar into the triple digits and high winds sweep across the region, thousands of firefighters are struggling to contain wildfires across Washington, Oregon, California, and Nevada.

The largest fire, at Chiwaukum Creek in eastern Washington, has already scorched approximately 4,500 acres of mountainous, heavily forested terrain, forcing residents of 860 homes to evacuate. Authorities, who say the Chiwaukum blaze is zero percent contained, have closed a 35-mile stretch of US 2, a vital east-west link in the state. Lt. Gov. Brad Owen (D) has declared a state of emergency for the 20 counties affected.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, the Chiwaukum fire was clearly visible from downtown Seattle, 70 miles away, as a massive plume of smoke billowed 25,000 feet into the air.

“This is a crown fire,” Joe Anderson of the US Forest Service told The Associated Press. “In other words, the fire is moving from one tree to another tree, and it’s being forced by the wind, and it’s so big because of that column being 25,000 feet. It’s feeding itself, it’s developing its own weather patterns.”

This is one of three fires making up the Mills Canyon Complex in Washington, a conflagration that nearly 1,000 firefighters are combating. The Mills Canyon fire, the largest of the three, has spread over 35 square miles and is 30 percent contained.

Across state lines, Gov. John Kitzhaber (D) of Oregon declared a state of emergency Wednesday, saying that the 13 wildfires burning there had exceeded the capacity of local firefighting crews and that the state’s National Guard would be sent in.

“Oregon is facing a severe fire season,” Governor Kitzhaber said. “Conditions are dry, and new fires are starting daily.”

The largest wildfire in that state, the Bailey Butte fire, has scorched 2,000 acres and is 5 percent contained. It’s part of the larger 4,000-acre Waterman Complex, which moved Wednesday into the Ochoco National Forest.

Southward, near the city of Redding in California, the so-called Bully fire had burned 10,200 acres as of Wednesday night. Eighteen structures have been destroyed in the blaze, and 2,200 firefighters are on the scene. The fire is 47 percent contained.

Police say the Bully fire was started by Freddie Alexander Smoke III, whom they also accuse of being an illegal marijuana grower. He drove his fertilizer truck over dry brush, igniting the blaze, say police, who arrested him Saturday.

The rash of fires across the West comes as the region’s Republicans and Democrats in the US Congress debate plans to more effectively contain the blazes, according to Gannett.

In the Senate, Ron Wyden (D) of Oregon and Michael Crapo (R) of Idaho introduced a bill Tuesday that would make states affected by wildfires eligible for assistance from a special disaster relief fund. This change, the legislators say, would save the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior from needing to reallocate funds from other operations to combat the blazes. Among the programs that these agencies have had to siphon money from have been fire-prevention projects, such as removing the dead vegetation that feeds wildfires.

Some GOP senators are backing a bill introduced by Sens. John McCain (R) of Arizona and John Barrasso (R) of Wyoming instead. Their bill calls for the thinning of 7.5 million acres of federal land, with the private timber industry playing a significant role in the process.

As of Thursday, it’s unclear which of the proposals will gain precedence or whether the two will be combined as one.

 This report includes material from The Associated Press.

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