OKANOGAN, Wash. (AP) - As Washington state's wildfires burned into the record books Monday, calls for help were answered from far and near.
Fire managers from New Zealand and Australia arrived to contribute to a ground campaign led by firefighters from across the West and augmented by U.S. soldiers. The flames that claimed the lives of three firefighters, injured four others and burned 200 homes so far also inspired an overwhelming outpouring from volunteers, who have been invited for the first time in state history to help battle the blazes.
This summer's fire response across the West has been overwhelmed by destructive blazes tearing through the tinder-dry region. The biggest on Monday was in Okanogan County on the Canadian border, where a group of five fires burning out of control became the largest in state history, scorching more than 400 square miles, fire spokesman Rick Isaacson said.
Lightning-sparked fires broke the state record on Monday, surpassing blazes that destroyed more than 300 homes in the same county last year.
"I'd like to set some different records," Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers said Monday.
The U.S. is in the midst of one of its worst fire seasons on record with some 11,600 square miles scorched so far. That's only the sixth worst going back to 1960, but it's the most acreage burned by this date in a decade, so the ranking is sure to rise.
"It's only Aug. 24th," Isaacson said. "In our district we could see this go clear to the first of November."
Thirteen firefighters have died nationwide this year, including the three in Washington who were killed when they tried to escape the fire in a vehicle, crashed and were overrun by flames.
So many fires are burning in Washington that managers are taking extreme measures, summoning help from Down Under and 200 U.S. troops from an base in Tacoma in the first such use of active-duty soldiers in 9 years. They also mobilized 700 National Guardsmen, the military's Blackhawk helicopters are dumping water over difficult terrain.
Nearly 4,000 volunteers also answered the state's call for help, far more than will be accepted, said state Department of Natural Resources spokesman Joe Smillie.
The state is looking for former firefighters or heavy equipment operators who can bulldoze fire lines to corral the blazes and keep them from spreading in mountainous, timber-covered areas. So far, about 200 people with the right experience have been cleared to work.
The 70 firefighters from Australia and New Zealand who arrived at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, on Monday were being outfitted to fill a critical shortage of mid-level fire managers such as equipment bosses, strike team leaders and supervisors.
"We only have so many in the United States," said U.S. Forest Service spokesman Mike Ferris.
These Southern Hemisphere nations have been partners with the United States for more than 50 years, able lend out firefighters because the severest part of their fire seasons occur at opposite times of the year. But the last time the U.S. asked for help from them was 2008, with 50 firefighters arriving. The U.S. sent firefighters abroad in 2007.
Costs for the international firefighters will be paid by the agency they're assigned to, officials said, though no estimate was yet available.
In Southern California, crews used snow-making cannons to blow water and planes dropped fire retardant at a 100-acre wildfire burning near the popular Snow Summit ski resort in Big Bear Lake. They were able to build a perimeter halfway around the blaze, but hundreds of homes remained threatened in the mountainous area, about 100 miles east of Los Angeles.
In Montana, firefighters traveled by rail to the edge of a thick forest to build fuel breaks to slow or stop a wildfire creeping toward a major rail line and U.S. Highway 2 on Glacier National Park's southern boundary.
Firefighters had been limited to attacking the blaze by air because the steep, dense terrain left few escape options for ground crews if the fire that has burned about a square mile suddenly shifted.
Geranios reported from Spokane. Keith Ridler in Boise, Chris Weber in Los Angeles and Matt Volz in Helena, Montana, contributed to this report.
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