Aussie, NZ firefighters to help battle US blazes

A charred car sits amid the ruins of a house destroyed by wildfires on Saturday near Okanogan, Washington. A series of blazes called the Okanogan Complex, which is made up of five wildfires in north-central Washington state, has scorched 65,154ha of
A charred car sits amid the ruins of a house destroyed by wildfires on Saturday near Okanogan, Washington. A series of blazes called the Okanogan Complex, which is made up of five wildfires in north-central Washington state, has scorched 65,154ha of brush and dry timber about 185km north-east of Seattle.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Emergency declared in Washington state as dozens of fires ravage north-western region

LOS ANGELES • President Barack Obama declared an emergency in wildfire-ravaged Washington state, as Australia and New Zealand sent firefighters to help US crews struggling to contain deadly blazes across America's drought-stricken west.

Emergency officials extended evacuation orders last Friday to additional towns threatened by a deadly array of wildfires in north-central Washington state as dozens of blazes swirled across the Pacific Northwest and surrounding regions, fuelled by heatwave conditions and dry-weather lightning strikes.

Large wildfires are currently blazing across 10 US states, with active fires burning 526,000ha.

Mr Obama's declaration releases federal funds to help relief efforts in the north-western state, where several fires are burning out of control and three firefighters have been killed.

"Many residents in Washington, as well as other western states, remain evacuated as firefighters work to contain large fires across the west," the National Interagency Fire Centre (NIFC) said.

Particularly worrying is a series of blazes called the Okanogan Complex, which is made up of five wildfires in north-central Washington.

More than 5,100 homes are threatened, the King-TV news station reported, and an unspecified number of buildings have already been destroyed.

The authorities last Thursday ordered the population of Tonasket, a riverfront hamlet 40km south of the Canadian border, to flee their homes as flames closed in.

Emergency officials last Friday issued additional evacuation orders for parts of Okanogan, a town at the western edge of the Colville Indian Reservation. Both communities were in the path of the Okanogan Complex wildfires, which scorched 65,154ha of brush and dry timber about 185km north-east of Seattle.

The Okanogan Complex includes the so-called Twisp River fire, which killed three firefighters and injured four others last Wednesday after forcing the evacuation of some 4,000 households in the towns of Twisp and Winthrop, about 48km west of Okanogan in the foothills of the Cascades.

With firefighters spread thin across the vast American west, the NIFC said a contingent of personnel from Australia and New Zealand was expected to arrive in Boise, Idaho, yesterday.

The state of Idaho is one of the hardest-hit, with 17 large fires burning last Friday, as Washington, Oregon and California trailed close behind. More than 30,000 firefighters are battling the western blazes. Canada and the US military have also sent crews to help with the effort.

At least 70 large wildfires have been raging the last two weeks through several bone-dry western states. More than 100 homes and dozens of outbuildings have been lost. Only one civilian death has been reported.

So far this year, US wildland blazes have claimed the lives of at least 13 firefighters, four more than died last year, the fire centre said.

For the year to date, wildfires nationwide have scorched nearly 2.9 million ha. That tally, exceeding the annual 10-year average for the past decade by 890,000ha, has already cost the federal government more than US$1 billion (S$1.4 billion) in fire suppression, according to the fire agency.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESS, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 24, 2015, with the headline 'Aussie, NZ firefighters to help battle US blazes'. Print Edition | Subscribe