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Inslee: ‘A match in a box full of fuses’

UPDATED: Thu., Aug. 20, 2015

CHELAN, Washington – With smoke filtering the summer sun and flags at half-staff to honor three firefighters killed near Twisp, Gov. Jay Inslee and other top elected officials pledged state and federal resources to battle fires that by late morning Thursday were scorching 390,000 acres around the state. The briefing they received from fire commanders in Central Washington underscored both the sense of loss of the three Forest Service firefighters the evening before and the enormity of the task ahead. “There’s not a front line because you have so many fires coming at you from so many directions,” Inslee said later. The entire east side is tinder dry and any more lightning strikes will be “like throwing a match in a box full of fuses.” Shifting winds, with increasing velocity, was expected to spread make judging the fires even more dangerous and difficult through Friday. “The wind has the final vote here,” Inslee said. With raw numbers and anecdotes, Inslee and other officials tried to sketch out the situation:  In the Chelan area alone, 39 homes and 28 outbuildings had been destroyed.  The south shore of Lake Chelan was essentially closed, with a total of 1,400 people under a Level 3 or Level 2 evacuation notice.  Several fires around Chelan had burned together, creating what firefighters now call the Reach Complex, which burned so hot that it jumped the Columbia River in several places.  An estimated 3,000 people were involved in firefighting activities around the state, and more were coming – some from as far away as Australia and New Zealand.  More than 100 fires were burning in the western states, U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said.  The Washington National Guard had 100 soldiers with fire training on the lines, and 40 more on their way. Adjutant General Bret Daugherty said he could send two more 10-person crews, but there aren’t enough experienced supervisors to oversee them. He was sending helicopters, including one on loan from another state.  After getting the briefing in Chelan, Inslee had initially planned to visit Twisp and Winthrop, the sites of some the most recent fires, but that leg of the trip was cancelled. “Too much security and danger to go to the fire line,” Inslee said in the State Patrol turboprop airplane as it left Pangborn Field in East Wenatchee. “They need to fight the fires, not be a host for the governor.” Inslee was joined at the briefing by U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, who both pledged to press President Obama for a quick decision on emergency aid, and push Congress to put more money into firefighting efforts. Tidwell asked the public to be patient about details from the fatal accident that claimed the lives of three service firefighters and sent a fourth to the Harborview Medical Center burn unit, where he was in critical condition. The four were in a truck that was in an accident, and overtaken by the fire. The Forest Service was bringing experts in to investigate the accident and was delaying the release of the victims’ names until families were notified, Tidwell said. Inslee said later the briefing pointed out several obvious things for the state to do in the future. It should add more firefighting resources, and train more National Guardsmen in the off season, not just for fire line duty but for aerial suppression. “You can’t just snap your fingers and have them appear when you have a fire.” It must reduce the “fuel load” the grass and brush that catch quickly in dry weather, as well as some trees, in a “naturally sustainable way.” And there’s one controversial thing that Inslee believes is obvious but some of his opponents dispute. It should find a way to reduce carbon emissions and fight global climate change. “Our state is Target Zero for catastrophic fires over the next decades because of climate change,” he said. “If it takes decades and decades (to reduce carbon emissions) that’s a reason to start, not a reason to delay.”
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