Troops called to help battle wildfires across dry West
Chelan, Wash. — Wildfires are putting such a strain on the nation’s firefighting resources that authorities have activated the military and sought international help to beat back scores of blazes burning uncontrolled throughout the dry West.
The situation is so urgent that the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise this week called in 200 active-duty military troops to help contain roughly 95 wildfires. It’s the first time since 2006 that the agency has mobilized soldiers for fire-suppression.
“Nationally, the system is pretty tapped,” said Rob Allen, the deputy incident commander for the fires around the Cascade Mountain resort town of Chelan. “Everything is being used right now, so competition for resources is fierce.”
The troops are all coming from the 17th Field Artillery Brigade at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma and will be sent to a fire north of Republic, a town in central Washington, about 30 miles south of the Canadian border.
Fire managers at the center are able to enlist military help when there are not enough civilian firefighting teams, thanks to a 1975 agreement between the Defense, Interior and Agriculture departments.
The help can be crucial in particularly active years like this one, when the center’s firefighting teams and equipment are fighting hundreds of fires across many states. In the last two weeks alone, more than 1,500 square miles have burned in the Lower 48 states, center spokesman Ken Frederick said.
“It’s like the fire season gas pedal has been pushed to the floor in a really short period of time, and that’s stressed our resources,” Frederick said. “And that’s got us relying on help from resources we don’t normally use.”
The fires in the Pacific Northwest get top priority when it comes to allocating pinched resources.
More than 1,000 people are battling the massive fires near Chelan that have burned more than 170 square miles and destroyed an estimated 75 buildings.
A lightning-sparked fire in Oregon’s Malheur National Forest has grown to 63 square miles and destroyed at least 26 houses. An additional 500 structures are threatened by the flames near the community of John Day, also in Oregon.
In the Northern Rockies, so many wildfires have ignited this month that officials are letting some that might be suppressed under normal circumstances burn because manpower and equipment are committed elsewhere.
The area experienced a normal fire season until last week, when a combination of drought, high temperatures and lightning-packed storms created new blazes across western Montana and Idaho.
As of Tuesday, at least 95 fires were burning in the two states, about 30 of them considered large.