Gregoire pledges more firefighting resources

WENATCHEE — Gov. Chris Gregoire visited a firefighting camp Thursday and pledged more state resources to help battle several large wildfires burning across Eastern Washington.

Across the region, nearly 3,000 firefighters dug lines and burned dry grass and brush in the path of the fires. Crews worked to better control the blazes before the weather changes.

Earlier Thursday, the governor signed an emergency declaration for all the state’s counties east of the Cascade Range. National Guard helicopters are among the resources authorized by that proclamation. A Chinook helicopter is able to deliver a 2,000-gallon water bucket.

Seven large complexes of fires have burned across 229 square miles of parched land east of the Cascades, where some areas have gone without any measurable rain for weeks.

Gregoire pledged two National Guard helicopters promptly and two more soon to help fight fires burning in Chelan County, the Wenatchee World reported. She noted that the availability of firefighting resources in Washington and nearby states is extremely limited due to existing firefighting efforts.

“This is one of the worst fire situations that I can recall during my time as governor,” Gregoire said in a statement. “Firefighters have done a tremendous job to keep people safe, and keep the number of homes lost to a minimum. But they need more resources, especially as we expect weather conditions to remain less than favorable.”

State Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark called the governor to ask for additional helicopters to fight the fires, she said.

Heavy smoke covered much of the region Thursday, eroding air quality but serving a positive sign of low winds and fires that weren’t quite so active. Firefighters hoped to take advantage of the favorable conditions before the weather shifts again.

A high pressure system in the area through Thursday was expected to lift Friday, and the effect is much like removing a lid from a hot pot, said Connie Mehmel, a spokeswoman for a complex of fires burning in the Wenatchee area.

“As that starts to lift, we can get instability in the area — more winds, more active fires — like opening the flue,” Mehmel said.

Nearly 3,000 firefighters were assigned to the seven large fire complexes Thursday, according to the state Department of Natural Resources. Some of those crews worked through the night Wednesday to dig fire lines, protect structures and set ablaze dry fuels that could feed the fires during the heat of day.

Near Lake Chelan, residents of 28 homes were warned to be ready to evacuate if a 20-acre wildfire grows. The fire, located about 9 miles northwest of Chelan, was visible from town.

Several fires near Wenatchee together have burned across 44 square miles. No homes have been lost on any of those blazes, Mehmel said.

About 300 homes threatened by major fires in the Wenatchee area are under mandatory evacuation orders, spokesman John Kruse said late Thursday.

A fire near the community of Entiat, north of Wenatchee, was 35 percent contained, Mehmel said, but fire officials had no containment estimates for the other fires in that complex.

Near Grand Coulee Dam, two fires grew to a combined 91,883 acres, or 143 square miles. Fire officials confirmed on Wednesday that three homes and nine outbuildings had burned there. The fire was 63 percent contained by late Thursday.

Another fire burning 17 miles southwest of Creston was 40 percent contained. That fire has blacked 24,500 acres, or about 38 square miles, some 50 miles west of Spokane.

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