Softer winds, new trucks buoy fire crews fighting deadly U.S. Northwest blazes

Members of a handcrew prepare to head out during the Okanogan Complex Fire near Tonasket, Washington

Members of a handcrew prepare to head out during the Okanogan Complex Fire near Tonasket, Washington

Members of a handcrew prepare to head out during the Okanogan Complex Fire near Tonasket, Washington, August 22, 2015.


Beleaguered ground crews battling newly swelled wildfires across Washington state were aided by softer winds on Sunday as they welcomed the expected arrival of new fire engines and water-carrying tankers to a military base in the drought-stricken U.S. region.

The full fleet of 20 large fire engines, to be deployed to hot spots threatening homes, and 10 water tankers will arrive at Fairchild Air Force Base outside Spokane before Tuesday, officials said.

Overall, there were 24 large wildfires or clusters of fires burning across Washington state and Oregon on Sunday, among the nearly 70 blazes raging in Idaho, California and Montana, the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise reported.

President Barack Obama has signed a federal declaration of emergency for Washington state, and authorities have called in reinforcements from abroad.

As of Sunday, the fires in Washington alone have blackened more than 590,000 acres (238,800 hectares) and destroyed more than 200 homes, according to Governor Jay Inslee’s office.

In the state’s north-central area, a cluster of blazes burning in Okanogan County swelled some 12,500 acres (5,059 hectares) to 239,733 acres (97,016 hectares) on Sunday from the day prior and was just 10 percent contained, a fire official said.

Softer winds on Sunday allowed firefighters to strengthen containment lines around the flames as evacuation orders for affected areas were reduced, a fire information officer assigned to the so-called Okanogan Complex said. Crews, however, were bracing for hot, dry, windy forecasts from late Monday.

The complex includes the Twisp River fire, which killed three firefighters and injured four others on Wednesday night after forcing thousands of households to evacuate in the towns of Twisp and Winthrop.

About 40 miles (64 km) to the south, in the area of a resort town at the base of Lake Chelan, another fire cluster has charred 86,400 acres (34,965 hectares), growing by about 1,000 acres from Saturday. It was about a third contained.

Some 1,000 residents remained under evacuated orders on Sunday, though sheriff’s deputies have been escorting some residents back for property checks, said Rico Smith, a fire information officer for the team fighting the blaze.

Heavy smoke hung over the central Washington region, and the state’s health department said flames may burn an area in the northeast that was once a uranium mine on the Spokane Reservation, but it will not make the smoke in the surrounding area any more toxic.

(Reporting by Eric M. Johnson in Seattle; Editing by Sandra Maler)