A new wave of firefighting equipment and fresh troops to relieve fatigued front-line crews are streaming into the state after a federal emergency was declared for the massive blazes burning across Central and Eastern Washington.
On Sunday, a new firefighting mobilization center was established at Fairchild Air Force Base with 20 large fire engines and 10 water tankers from Utah, Nevada, Arizona and Colorado.
National Guard Blackhawk helicopters are coming in from Wyoming, Colorado and Minnesota as well, and another 700 members of the Washington National Guard joined thousands of firefighters already deployed on 16 large fires covering more than 920 square miles – more than 15 times the size of Spokane.
Another 200 National Guard members will be given critical fire training soon to relieve fire crews.
“These new assets will provide an incredible assist for our firefighters throughout Eastern Washington,” Gov. Jay Inslee said. “With erratic wind conditions and extremely dry fuels, our firefighters need every available resource to manage current fires and respond to new ones.”
The Fairchild center will be managed by a 17-person team from San Diego.
More than 200 homes have been destroyed in the fires and more than 12,000 homes and thousands of other structures remain threatened.
Air again unhealthy
Heavy smoke settled back into the Spokane-Coeur d’Alene area Sunday after a reprieve from the air pollution Saturday.
Health officials said the concentration of fine particulates in the air reached unhealthy levels, and they urged people to avoid heavy work or exercise outdoors and to stay indoors as much as possible.
The National Weather Service issued an air quality alert for Eastern Washington and North Idaho.
The layer of smoke began to lift Sunday over the complex of fires in north-central Washington, improving visibility to allow aerial fire tankers to resume retardant drops.
But the smoke also acts as a cap on fire activity, and when it clears, the humidity goes down, temperatures go up and fire activity often will pick up again, said Suzanne Flory, spokeswoman for the Okanogan group of five fires that has burned more than 375 square miles and remained about 10 percent contained Sunday.
Most firefighters recovering
Three firefighters injured in a fire Wednesday near Twisp, Washington, are recuperating, while a fourth injured firefighter, Daniel Lyon, is in critical condition at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.
Three others – Tom Zbyszewski, Andrew Zajac and Rick Wheeler – died as the flames suddenly changned direction and overtook their U.S. Forest Service vehicle, a small wildland fire engine, which had gone off a road on a curve. Their bodies were found in the truck, said John Phipps, lead on the Coordinated Response Protocol Team that is investigating the deaths.
Lyon, 25, of Puyallup, Washington, escaped the engine and was found with third-degree burns over about two-thirds of his body, officials said. The other three firefighters injured were nearby but not part of the engine group.
Why the engine went off the road remains a mystery. “There were no witnesses to the actual event of the truck leaving the road, except Daniel, who is not able to talk to us for quite some time,” Phipps said Sunday at a news conference in Wenatchee.
The fire remained uncontained Sunday at close to 10,000 acres.
Red Cross moves Republic shelter
The American Red Cross moved its Republic, Washington, fire shelter to Grace Evangelical Free Church in Colville as the North Star fire southwest of Republic grew, covering an estimated 147,000 acres.
The shelter – one of eight the Red Cross is operating or supporting for people displaced by wildfires in the state – had been at Republic Elementary School.
A Level 3 evacuation order was in place for McMann Creek south to the Colville Reservation – an area about 6 miles south of Republic, the Ferry County Sheriff’s Office said Sunday evening. Residents were advised to evacuate immediately as the fire grew closer.
A Level 2 evacuation notice was in effect for the city of Republic and surrounding communities. People in those areas were told to be ready to leave immediately.
Mine smoke wouldn’t be worse
If wildfires reach the site of a defunct uranium mine in Stevens County, the smoke won’t be any more toxic than the standard smoke from a wildfire, the state Department of Health said.
The agency released a statement saying radioactive materials at the Midnight Mine, about 3 miles northwest of Wellpinit on the Spokane Indian Reservation, “won’t exacerbate the dangers of wildfire smoke if the fires overtake the site as the naturally occurring radioactive material stays in its original rock form and does not burn.”
Nevertheless, the department said, people in the area should take the same precautions as they would with any other kind of smoky air.
“People are encouraged to remain indoors to avoid breathing smoky air, which can cause coughing, chest pain and shortness of breath in healthy people,” the department said in the release.
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