By Eric M. Johnson
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.
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.
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.