SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) - Firefighters in Washington state were grateful Tuesday to learn that reinforcements were arriving from Down Under as they kept a wary eye on rising temperatures and winds that threatened to expand what's already the largest wildfire on record in the state.
The Okanogan fires, which have claimed the lives of three firefighters, grew by 2.6 square miles on Monday night and have now burned 403 square miles. A total of 1,345 people were battling the flames.
The National Weather Service issued a red-flag warning for the area, saying temperatures were expected to climb into the 90s as humidity dropped and winds gusted to 20 mph.
"Hot, dry and unstable conditions will create an environment conducive to increased growth on existing wildfires," the Weather Service said in its warning.
Later in the week, the forecast offered the potential for light showers and thunderstorms in Okanogan County.
The 71 firefighters from Australia and New Zealand picked up equipment Monday at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, before heading out to help a ground campaign led by firefighters from across the West and augmented by U.S. soldiers.
"'The Aussies are coming!" said Rick Isaacson, a spokesman for the Okanogan wildfires.
Sixteen of the Australian firefighters will be assigned to those fires and were expected to arrive on scene Thursday. They are mid-level fire managers who will mostly work in support functions, although some may operate bulldozers, he said.
Firefighters across the West this summer have been overwhelmed by destructive blazes tearing through the tinder-dry region.
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. It'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.
So many fires are burning in Washington that managers are taking extreme measures, summoning help from abroad and 200 U.S. troops from a base in Tacoma in the first such use of active-duty soldiers in nine years.
Also, nearly 4,000 volunteers answered the state's call for help, far more than will be accepted.
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.
Fires also were burning in Montana and Idaho, where an atmospheric inversion was holding heavy smoke over western Montana, robbing wildfires of oxygen and preventing the sun from heating ground fuels
The conditions helped firefighters make progress on the fire lines near Noxon, Montana, and Clark Fork in northern Idaho.
Residents near Essex, Montana, remained under an evacuation advisory as a wildfire burned about a mile away from the town on the southern edge of Glacier National Park.
Keith Ridler contributed to this story from Boise, Idaho.
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