SEATTLE – Crews battling a flurry of wildfires raging unchecked in the Pacific Northwest braced on Thursday for high winds forecast in the region a day after three firefighters were killed and four others were injured in Washington state.
Authorities late on Wednesday ordered the evacuation of about 4,000 homes threatened by fire in the riverfront towns of Twisp and Winthrop in the Methow Valley, nestled in the foothills of the Cascade mountains in north-central Washington.
The so-called Twisp River fire has roared through 16,000 acres (6,475 hectares) of rural brush and dry timber about 115 miles (185 km) northeast of Seattle since erupting on Wednesday.
As of Thursday morning, fire crews had yet to establish firm containment lines around the blaze, according to the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center.
The agency said wildfire suppression efforts in the Northwest as a whole would be complicated by “a windy day across much of eastern Washington and northern portions of eastern Oregon.”
The blaze near Twisp was burning in the same county as 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).
The Twisp River blaze is just one of more than 70 large wildfires or clusters of fires under full-scale attack in several Western states, the bulk of them in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, California and Montana, the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, reported. Those fires have collectively scorched some 1.3 million acres (5,260 sq. km) in the drought-parched region.
The Twisp River blaze has also proven the deadliest. Three U.S. Forest Service firefighters perished on Wednesday while battling the flames, which overtook their position after they were involved in a vehicle accident, Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers said. Four other firefighters were injured, he said, one of them hospitalized in critical condition with burns over 60 percent of his body.
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 center said.
This year’s toll also is the highest since 2013, when 34 wildland firefighters were killed nationwide, including 19 members of an elite “hotshots” team in Arizona.
About 50 miles (80 km) south of Twisp, a 68,465-acre (27,706-hectare) blaze dubbed the First Creek fire was posing a renewed threat to populated areas after destroying 39 homes and 28 outbuildings days ago around the resort town of Chelan, said Chelan County Sheriff’s Office 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.
Dozens more homes have been reduced to ruins in Idaho and Oregon in recent days.
The widespread conflagrations have stretched civilian firefighting resources thin, prompting authorities to call in help from the U.S. Army and Canadian crews.
President Barack Obama has directed his administration to consult with local and state officials as the threat persists.
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 would continue to be made available where needed.
In Oregon, Gov. Kate Brown toured a fire zone in her state on Wednesday and along with Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter called up state National Guard troops backed by military aircraft to help combat blazes in their respective states.
A dozen large wildfires that have collectively charred some 330,000 acres (1,335 sq. km) continued to burn in Oregon as of Thursday, though half of them were 50 percent or more contained, the interagency fire center reported.
The most damaging of them has already destroyed 36 homes and was threatening more than 700 structures as it burned largely unchecked near the town of John Day, fire officials said.