Officials battling wildfires that have raged across hundreds of square miles of Washington state said Saturday they hoped that easing winds could finally make it possible to contain the fires.
“Very, very few fires are under control, and the majority of the eastern Washington ones are not under control because of the lack of resources,” said Don Waller, chief of Okanogan County Fire District 6. “But fortunately, the winds are supposed to be favorable today.”
The fires, swept along by winds of about 35 mph, have rapidly spread across 355 square miles of the Okanogan region, one of the worst-hit areas. The fires have destroyed several structures, though officials could not estimate the number of properties scorched.
The country marked its 10th day at Preparedness Level 5, the highest set by federal authorities, indicating that there are active fires in many areas and that have yet to be contained. The federal government on Saturday reported 11 new fires in the Northwestern states and California, taking the number of active fires in the country to 70.
The drought-stricken West is dealing with blazes in several states, including Idaho, Oregon, Montana, Colorado and California. Thirteen people have died in the various fires, according to the Associated Press.
Last week, President Obama authorized federal emergency aid to several counties and Native American tribes in Washington state to supplement local efforts. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is authorized to provide equipment to help alleviate the impact of the emergency, according to a FEMA news release.
On Thursday, Washington state issued an evacuation order for the communities of Okanogan, with a population of 2,500 people, and Tonasket, with 1,000 people. The orders were still in place on Saturday.
The evacuations came after three firefighters died and four others were injured battling the fires last week. The three men were killed when their vehicle crashed and was engulfed in flames in one of the largest wildfires in the area spanning 16,000 acres.
In an unprecedented move, Washington state put out a call for civilians to join the firefighting effort but said they will have to be accompanied by trained firefighters. Officials said that the role of civilians will depend on the availability of professional firefighters to direct them and ensure their safety.
“The department is taking volunteers and training them up to the standards, and they will get out on the field only after 40 hours of training,” Waller said. It’s the first time that the state has called for additional support from civilians.
There are 29,000 firefighters in the various states that are working.
Idaho is confronting 17 separate fires, the most in the country. The town of Weippe, Idaho, where fires burned 63 square miles of timber, has been evacuated.
In Colorado, authorities on Saturday lifted the public health advisory issued earlier in the week for the heavily populated cities of Denver and Fort Collins.
“We allowed the advisory, which ran from Thursday to this morning at 9 a.m., to expire because we had a reprieve from the winds this morning, but it could be reactivated later in the afternoon,” said Christopher Dann, spokesman for the state’s Air Pollution Control Division.
More than 11,000 firefighters are on the ground in California, trying to put out 16 active fires, mostly in the northern part of the state.
The largest fire, the Tesla Fire in Alameda County, which spread over 2,700 acres, was largely under control. About 85 percent of the wildfire was under control as of Saturday morning, according to Scott McLean, battalion chief of the state fire department. “There has not been much damage to property in the area,” he said.
During the past week, smoke affected air quality in the San Francisco Bay area, and residents have been asked at times to stay indoors.
Thunderstorms were expected to exacerbate the situation in Montana on Friday in the area near Glacier National Park, forcing evacuation in a few surrounding areas, the AP reported.
And in Oregon, firefighters were trying to control a blaze in a remote northeastern area bordering Washington.
So far in 2015, more than 7.4 million acres have been affected by wildfires, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, which coordinates relief efforts for wildfires. This number includes a few isolated incidents in other states such as Texas and North Carolina. Records from the agency show that this year has been particularly devastating. More acres have been lost so far this year than in the same eight-month period during the past 10 years.
Last year, federal agencies spent more than $1.5 billion battling wildfires, according to the agency’s report.