With more than 17 major fires burning in Washington, Army soldiers at Joint Base Lewis-McChord are being called in to help. The strain on resources has forced fire officials to reduce mop-up work, and extra help has not been forthcoming for every new fire.

Share story

As firefighters battle dozens of blazes across Washington that have destroyed homes and businesses and forced evacuations, officials are scrambling to deal with the fallout of a dryer, hotter fire season that’s strained firefighting resources nationwide.

In Washington state, where 17 large wildfires are burning, the U.S. Army announced about 200 soldiers from Joint Base Lewis-McChord had been tapped to join the fire lines across the nation to support personnel already battling blazes.

It’s the first time since 2006 that the Boise-based National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC), in charge of coordinating resource deployment for the nation’s wildfire response, has asked for military help, agency officials said this week.

Wildfire coverage

Wildfire growth
Twisp fire
Volunteers

The soldiers will form 10 crews of 20 people each and receive a few days of wildfire-suppression training before being deployed to the fire lines on Sunday. Their assistance is but one of several outside resources state and federal fire officials are utilizing during an unusually intense fire season marked by dozens of unchecked blazes burning across the western United States.

As of Tuesday, more than 100 non-contained wildfires at least 100 acres large were burning nationwide, mostly in 10 Western states, said Randy Eardley, an NIFC spokesman. Seventeen of those raged across wildlands in Washington, officials said.

“Because it’s unusual having that amount of large uncontained (fires) at one time,” Eardley said, “we’re stretched pretty thin right now.”

All national firefighting resources — including some 26,000 firefighters, 33 air tankers and 160 helicopters — are fully deployed, Eardley said. But even that response hasn’t kept pace during this feverish fire season.

In turn, officials have turned to troops — and even to other nations — for help.

“We’ve also put in a request for assistance out of Australia and New Zealand, and we have firefighters from Canada helping, too,” Eardley said.

Help from National Guard, prisoners

In Washington, officials for the state’s Department of Natural Resources, which protects some 13 million acres of state forestlands, said they’ve deployed its full complement of crews and equipment — and then some.

“We have 98 fire engines in operation, with crews of three to four people on each,” said Mary Verner, DNR’s deputy supervisor for resource protection. “We’ve also added five three-person crews this year. Those crews are rotating in using old equipment that we previously had sent to the boneyard.”

Washington’s firefighting efforts have been augmented by help from the National Guard and the use of 28 10-person correctional crews, with inmates specially trained and certified to fight wildland fires, officials said.

And on Tuesday, Washington State Patrol Chief John Batiste authorized the mobilization of state firefighting resources in support of firefighters working to contain the Black Canyon and McFarland Creek fires near the town of Pateros in Okanogan County.

The Black Canyon fire is believed to have been ignited by lightning on Friday, according to the State Patrol. The cause of the McFarland Creek fire is unknown. The two fires have burned more than 6,000 acres and are threatening 462 structures, plus crops and power lines.

On Tuesday, Okanogan County Emergency Management ordered an immediate evacuation in a number of threatened areas.

Meantime, in Chelan, more than 1,000 firefighters have worked since Friday to battle the 63,000-acre Chelan Complex fire that has destroyed at least 49 buildings, including homes and businesses.

The blaze, also started by lightning on Friday, has prompted officials to issue evacuation notices affecting 3,000 people.

On the Colville Reservation, to the northeast of Lake Chelan, the North Star fire is burning more than 25,000 acres. About 40 homes on the reservation have been evacuated, said Iris Estes, spokeswoman for the North Star fire.

The cause of the fire, which started Thursday, is under investigation, Estes said.

This year’s strain on resources in Washington has forced fire officials to revise their typical firefighting tactics, Verner said.

Under normal circumstances, she said, they would deploy firefighters to suppress fires, then leave some behind to do mop-up work and ensure the doused fires don’t reignite.

“This year, we have to take the risk of not leaving anyone behind,” Verner said. “We need to redeploy everyone immediately, sending them from fire to fire. We’re not able to follow the normal progression.”

One fire in rural Stevens County that started Friday has destroyed 15 homes and 23 other structures, but with crews elsewhere, little help was available, Koshare Eagle, a spokeswoman at the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center in Portland, told the Los Angeles Times.

One area fire chief with a rural fire department put out a call for help to fight the Carpenter Road fire and “got nothing,” Stevens County District 1 Fire Chief Mike Bucy, who oversees a nearby district adjacent to Spokane, told that newspaper. “Even my district, we already had units out on other fires. … He pretty much got screwed.”

Fires bigger, costlier

The strain on firefighting resources in Washington and elsewhere comes amid a trend in recent years of longer fire seasons.

“By and large, we’ve noticed over time that fire seasons are tending to start a little earlier and end a little later,” Eardley said.

Driven largely by changes in climate, a proliferation of wildland fire fuels and other factors, the longer fire seasons in recent years have been marked by fewer, but larger and more resistant fires that burn longer and require more resources to suppress, Eardley said.

“In an average year we see burning on more than 4 million acres nationally,” he said. “But since 2000, we have seen more and more seasons where we burn double that, from 8 on up to 10 million acres.”

Eight of the worst fire seasons on record have occurred since 2000, he said, including the worst: 2006, when wildfires scorched more than 9.8 million acres nationwide.

So far this year, more than 7 million acres have burned nationwide — about 2 million more than all of last year, Eardley noted.

“And we still have a lot of fire season to go,” he said.

As of this week, more than 203,000 acres had burned in Washington, which has a total state fire-suppression budget of $26 million this year, Verner said. When the smoke clears on this fire season, DNR expects to easily surpass that amount, she said.

Costs to battle just one 6,000-acre blaze this year — the Blue Creek fire that ignited July 20 in the Blue Mountains east of Walla Walla — are estimated to total $10.3 million.

“We don’t have a current running tally for this season,” Verner said. “But we absolutely expect we’ll have to go back to the Legislature for a supplemental appropriation.”

Last year, DNR received $73 million more than initially budgeted.

Aug. 14, 2015: An airplane drops retardant and a chopper scoops water from Lake Chelan to dump on an approaching wildfire, as the fire grew and spread east to homes just east of Chelan County Park. (John de Leon / The Seattle Times)