The wildfires devastating eastern Washington have stretched firefighters so thin and prompted so many offers of assistance from ordinary citizens that state officials for the first time are inviting them to join the battle — and people quickly lined up to help.
“We’ve had people come in with everything from a backhoe or a water tender or an old-fashioned firetruck to people with nothing but boots and a strong back, as they say,” said Joe Smillie, a spokesman for the Washington Department of Natural Resources.
Smillie was stationed at City Hall in Omak, the location of one of two training centers the state has set up; the other is in nearby Colville. The state has also set up phone numbers, email addresses and a special website to make contact with and screen potential volunteers. He said scores of people have come in person and hundreds more have called or emailed.
“The equipment is our prime focus,” Smillie said. “The people — we are definitely taking down names and making a roster. We plan to share that with the Red Cross and local fire departments.”
Smillie said some people may be put to work soon in support roles, but he emphasized that it was unlikely many would be assigned to the front lines of fires who did not have firefighting experience.
He noted that the Legislature had passed a bill this spring that “made it easier for citizens to assist firefighting efforts by limiting their liability in certain cases.”
The response was so strong that on Friday afternoon the department issued a clarification on its Facebook page.
“In less than a day, an unprecedented outpouring of volunteers has inundated both centers, far outpacing the few available staff to process and deploy qualified volunteers,” the statement said. “We want to reiterate that we are seeking those with firefighting expertise only — particularly those who currently hold, or have previously held, red or blue card certifications.”
At least 17 large fires have burned more than 400,000 acres in the region, and the fires had grown by more than 130,000 acres in 24 hours as of Friday, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Conditions were not expected to improve soon.
President Obama declared a federal emergency in the area Friday, freeing up federal funding for emergency operations, counseling and public health assessments. Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee, citing fuel shortages in the area, amended an early statewide emergency declaration, allowing some fuel carriers to drive more hours than is ordinarily permitted.
The major worry on Friday was the wind, which was forecast to gust as high as 50 mph — and to shift directions unfavorably.
“That’s going to be a very big test of our fire lines, and without any moisture to help us out,” said Kale Casey, who is helping manage the more than 130,000 acres burning near Chelan.
“We’ve been here three weeks, and the minimal rain that we got brought lightning, which then brought havoc in Chelan,” he said. “We need a long, good old-fashioned rain, but there’s none of that in sight. It’s been a record drought summer.”
Thousands of people have been evacuated from the rural region, including many who fled fires just a year ago. Scores of homes and other structures have been destroyed — officials say they do not know how many. The region’s fruit packinghouses have been damaged, livestock have been relocated, and electrical transmission lines have been downed. On Wednesday, three federal firefighters died in a blaze near the town of Twisp.
Fire crews from as far away as Mississippi and New Zealand, as well as Army soldiers from a base in Washington, are also joining the fight.
The state began setting up the training centers as Inslee and other officials have sought to assure weary, frustrated and displaced residents that more help was on the way.
Casey, from the Chelan fires, noted that the 930 firefighters working there included seven 20-person teams from the Washington National Guard.
“Because the Northwest has been experiencing longer, larger and more challenging fire seasons for the past decade, there’s now a procedure to get the Guard trained in the spring so when summer comes they come out with appropriate leadership,” Casey said.
Some residents are angered by the stress on resources, but they have also emphasized their support for firefighters and emergency workers — including those killed or injured.
The three firefighters who died were employees of the U.S. Forest Service based in the area and had been deployed to a fire near Twisp, on the eastern, more arid side of the Cascade Mountains. They were identified as Andrew Zajac, 26, of Winthrop; Richard Wheeler, 31, of Wenatchee; and Tom Zbyszewski, 20, a junior physics major at Whitman College in Walla Walla.
The Forest Service said Friday that it had begun an investigation into the deaths, as well as into injuries to four other firefighters.
Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers told the Associated Press on Friday that the three firefighters who died were in a vehicle that crashed as they were attempting to flee the blaze. He said the four injured firefighters were trying to escape on foot. Firefighters in a second vehicle did escape the fire.
One of the injured, Daniel Lyon, 25, of Puyallup, was in critical condition at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, with burns to about 60% of his body. Two of the injured have been treated and released, according to the Forest Service. The status of the fourth firefighter was unclear.
Some of the small towns threatened by fire are popular among tourists — sunny and warm escapes for people on the typically wetter west side of the Cascades. Chelan sits on the eastern shore of Lake Chelan, much of which is lined with vacation homes.
Wayne Patterson, a fire information officer in the area, said fire was threatening some of those homes but that firefighters were working hard to hold a line against it. He said retardant drops, ground crews and helicopters drawing water out of the lake were all helping — so much so that not everyone had evacuated.
Even as helicopters hovered over the lake to scoop up water, he said, “people on jet skis and little boats are going by. They’re still trying to play in the lake at the same time. It’s crazy.”