Spokane, Wash. — The massive fires burning in Washington state are a “slow-motion disaster,” Gov. Jay Inslee said Thursday as he praised crews battling the blazes that have burned an area nearly the size of Rhode Island.

Inslee spoke in Chelan before traveling to meet firefighters on the lines that he said were exhausted but committed to stop the blazes.

“They know they’re in danger and this danger is persistent,” he said.

Dense smoke from the big fires burning east of the Cascade Range grounded helicopters and airplanes that had been aiding fire crews in the region.

It was also causing respiratory problems for people far from the fire lines. In Spokane County, which has nearly 500,000 residents, the air quality was deemed unhealthy.

Crews battling a 262-square mile blaze near the town of Republic, south of the Canadian border, also were dealing with smoke as well as flames, fire spokesman Donnie Davis said.

“Everybody up here is rubbing their eyes,” he said. “It’s brutal.”

A wildfire about 70 miles southwest in Okanogan — the largest blaze ever recorded in the state — grew to nearly 438 square miles.

“We’re still socked in,” fire spokesman Rick Isaacson said. “There’s maybe one mile of visibility.”

Inslee said the fires were more spread out across the state than last year and had burned about 1,144 square miles — an area nearly the size of Rhode Island.

“This is not just a local fire, it’s a statewide slow-motion disaster,” he said.

Major General Bret Daugherty, who commands the Washington National Guard, was travelling with Inslee. He said there were about 1,000 Guard troops helping firefighting efforts, including 200 on the fire lines.

So far, officials have counted 40 homes and 40 outbuildings destroyed by the Okanogan blaze. The fire is about 17 percent contained by more than 1,300 firefighters.

A forecast calling for highs in the 70s and rain in the next few days was good news.

“It is looking better for us,” Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers said.

Several Western states are seeing a severe fire season with some 11,600 square miles scorched so far.

“You can imagine how stretched thin everybody is,” said Dan Dallas, deputy incident commander of the Okanogan fire. “We’re all working without the resources that in a normal year — which I don’t think there is such a thing anymore — that we might have.”

The Oregon Military Department said soldiers also were ready to help battle a wildfire that has destroyed more than three dozen homes near John Day, about 150 miles east of Portland.

Fires also were burning in California, Montana and Idaho.


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