Winds will continue to challenge firefighters across North Central Washington. President Obama has declared a state of emergency.By Lewis Kamb, Sandi Doughton
Seattle Times staff reporters
They’ve deployed all available personnel and equipment, called in the National Guard, obtained an emergency declaration from the president, even appealed to common citizens for help on the front lines.
But state officials managing the battle against a hellstorm of wildfires burning out of control across Washington are still awaiting the biggest boon:
A break in the weather.
“With big fires like this, the unfortunate truth is it takes a change in weather or terrain to stop them,” Washington Public Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark said Friday. “That’s really the best you can do.”
Evacuation orders remained in effect in at least six towns and several rural areas and thousands of homes continue to be endangered, as exhausted firefighters at the mercy of the winds largely settled into defensive postures on Friday.
“I’m not going to get someone hurt or killed protecting stuff,” Todd Pechota, an Okanogan fire incident commander, said during a briefing Friday.
Already, three firefighters have been killed and four others injured, untold numbers of homes have been consumed and hundreds of residents have been displaced as fires now rage across nearly a half-million acres of Washington timber- and rangelands.
With 490,000 acres in Washington having burned or now burning — an area larger in size than the cities of Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and Los Angeles combined — 2015 now marks the worst fire season in state history.
Last year’s total of 413,143 acres burned had been the previous record, according to the state Department of Natural Resources.
President Obama declared an emergency Friday in the state and has ordered federal aid to supplement state and local response efforts.
The president’s action, which authorizes the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to coordinate all disaster-relief efforts, means Washington will be eligible to recoup up to 75 percent of costs to respond to the wildfires.
The declaration also would provide direct assistance on the ground in affected communities — with food, debris removal, grief counselors and other resources, said Karina Shagren, a spokeswoman for the Washington Military Department.
With Washington now among the hardest hit of Western states dealing with unusually fierce wildfires this season, reinforcements are streaming in from other states.
Oregon, Colorado, Arizona, Wyoming and Minnesota are among states that have sent or are sending crews and equipment to help battle blazes here, officials said.