Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire declared a statewide wildfire emergency as several large fires burned in the state and forecasters predicted more thunderstorms and high winds.
“Numerous wildfires across Washington pose a serious threat to homes, infrastructure, businesses and natural resources … and our firefighting resources have begun to grow scarce,” Gregoire said Wednesday following a helicopter tour of the state’s largest fire, the Tripod complex in north-central Washington.
The proclamation frees state agencies to spend money and resources to help local jurisdictions fight wildfires.
“Those are the sorts of things that help us in terms of making it easier to get resources,” said Ray Steiger, an information officer at the Columbia County fire complex in southeastern Washington.
Lightning-caused fires in Columbia County cover 34,000 acres and have destroyed two homes and 10 outbuildings, said Lisa Caldwell, a county emergency management official.
An unknown number of residents along a roughly five-mile stretch of the Tucannon River were told to evacuate Wednesday, as were some residents on Robinette Mountain and along Wolf Fork Road, she added.
Thirty-five residents evacuated Tuesday from a nursing home in Dayton were allowed to return after smoke from the Columbia County complex had cleared, and residents of some of the 200 homes that were evacuated also came back, Steiger said.
In contrast to the forecast for most other wildfire-prone parts of the state, firefighters in the southeast corner were relieved by predictions of lower winds, temperatures and humidity early Thursday, officials said.
The governor flew over the 200-square-mile Tripod complex in a Black Hawk helicopter as flames leaped 100 feet into the air. Nearly 3,000 firefighters are assigned to those fires, which were burning between Winthrop and Conconully and were 40 percent contained.
Afterward Gregoire met with fire officials and area residents.
“It’s very rugged terrain,” Gregoire said. “The firefighters go in and put up a line, and the fire will jump a mile over the line. They’re doing a great job of thus far being able to protect the community, which is priority No. 1. We’re just hoping now the weather cooperates.”
However, the forecast called for more thunderstorms, high winds and low humidity after lightning started several new fires in tinder-dry, bug-killed timber in the Okanogan and Wenatchee national forests.
In Oregon, wildfires were burning on more than 100,000 acres of high desert in sparsely populated Harney County.
Lightning provided the spark, dried-out rangeland the fuel of grass, sagebrush and juniper, and high winds the driving force.
“It’s been hectic,” said Tara Wilson, spokeswoman for firefighting agencies south of Burns. “We are getting tired, and our crews are getting tired. Things are stretched pretty thin. We’ve just had too much of the high winds, and the fires are pretty erratic in their behavior. It’s going to be a long fight.”
In Montana, Gov. Brian Schweitzer took a first-hand look at the Emerald Hills wildfire east of Billings that has burned about 6,000 acres, intermittently closing Interstate 90 and destroying two homes.
An evacuation order was issued Wednesday for another 25-30 homes along U.S. 87, in an area southwest of the fire. People in about 190 homes in the Emerald Hills subdivision were ordered to evacuate Tuesday.
Nearly 7.2 million acres, or more than 11,000 square miles, have burned across the U.S. this year, much of it in enormous grass and brush fires that have swept Western rangeland since March. Wildfires last year had burned about 6.8 million acres to this date, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
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