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Wildfire smoke fouls air across U.S. Northwest

A hillside burned by the Okanogan Complex fire is pictured near Tonasket, Washington

By Eric M. Johnson

Wildfires burning across several arid states in the U.S. Northwest on Wednesday have blanketed much of the region with unhealthy, smoky air, prompting warnings from officials.

Parts of Washington state, Oregon, Idaho and Montana were under air quality alerts, according to the National Weather Service, as thousands of firefighters battled some 50 large wildfires.

Blazes burning across the U.S. West have charred nearly 1.6 million acres (648,000 hectares), roughly the size of Delaware, with Washington state and Oregon alone accounting for more than 1 million acres (400,000 hectares) of the tally, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

In north-central Washington, a cluster of deadly fires dubbed the Okanogan Complex jumped some 20,000 acres in size from the day prior to more than 280,267 acres (113,420 hectares), after a blanket of cooler air lifted, kicking up winds and heat.

The fire, now the state’s largest on record, was 17 percent contained on Wednesday, up from Monday’s 10 percent.

Evacuation orders were issued for more than 2,000 residents and thousands more have been advised they may soon need to flee as well, said U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Suzanne Flory.

Last week, three firefighters were killed and four were injured in an initial assault on a branch of the Okanogan Complex. So far this year, U.S. wildland blazes have claimed the lives of at least 13 firefighters.

About 50 miles (80 km) to the south, fires have scorched 88,142 acres (35,670 hectares) along Lake Chelan, and some 1,000 residents in the area of a resort town at the foot of the lake remain under evacuation orders.

This summer’s blazes have stretched resources thin, prompting a rare enlistment of firefighting reinforcements from the U.S. military and abroad.

President Barack Obama said in an interview with Seattle’s KIRO-TV that Congress should focus on funding the fight against wildfires when it returns from its summer break.

“Each year we’ve seen it get worse. Part of this has to do with climate change and it’s something that we’re going to have to anticipate in the decades in the future,” he said.

Dozens of fire managers and firefighters from Australia and New Zealand were preparing for deployment against the Washington wildfires, the U.S. Forest Service said.

About 200 U.S. Army soldiers from Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma have already joined the front lines, as have crews from Canada, the fire center said.

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