DAYTON, Wash. — Firefighters from Arizona, Oregon and New Mexico joined the fight Thursday against a group of fast-growing wildfires in southeastern Washington, and officials said they still need more help.
“The call has gone out,” said Louise Day, fire information officer at the Columbia County fires. “The growth potential for the fires is still extreme.”
Two hundred buildings were threatened by the fires, which covered nearly 100 square miles near Dayton on Thursday – up from 53 square miles Wednesday. Two homes had been destroyed, 35 outbuildings had been damaged and about 300 people had been urged to evacuate. More than 500 firefighters were battling the blazes.
The state Department of Natural Resources generally keeps several firefighting teams free for initial attack on new blazes. But those teams have been busy for weeks, and the state has nearly exhausted its resources, said Public Lands Commissioner Doug Sutherland.
On Thursday, Sutherland ordered up a DC-10 jet capable of dropping as much as eight times more retardant than the usual air tanker. The giant plane, which is owned by a private contractor, costs $26,000 an hour, with a minimum of three hours a day.
Sutherland said he expects to use the jetliner, which can drop a line of retardant 50 feet wide and more than a mile long, for two days, or about six hours, including travel time from Southern California.
“It’s not inexpensive, but depending on how you use it, it could very well be less expensive than using other resources that are currently not even available,” he said in a telephone interview from Olympia.
Gov. Chris Gregoire declared a state of emergency Wednesday, allowing state agencies to send money and resources to help local jurisdictions battle the blazes.
Conditions were better for firefighting Thursday, with lower winds and temperatures. But forecasts call for higher temperatures and dry conditions over the weekend and into next week.
In Walla Walla County, in southeastern Washington, some residents along Coppei Creek were urged to evacuate as three fires burned nearby.
In eastern Oregon, wildfires burned through tens of thousands of acres of grass, sagebrush and juniper. Most of the fires were started by lightning.
“It’s been hectic,” said Tara Wilson, spokeswoman for firefighting agencies south of Burns. “We are getting tired, and our crews are getting tired. Things are stretched pretty thin. We’ve just had too much of the high winds, and the fires are pretty erratic in their behavior. It’s going to be a long fight.”
In Montana, firefighters continued to battle a blaze in a subdivision east of Billings that had burned nearly 3,900 acres – or roughly 6 square miles. It was 85 percent contained by Thursday evening.
More than 7 million acres, about 11,000 square miles, have burned across the U.S. this year, well above the average of about 4.4 million acres by this time of year, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.