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Crews battle wildfires threatening homes in Pacific Northwest

Date: 01-Aug-13
Country: USA
Author: Eric M. Johnson and Teresa Carson

Firefighters in Washington state and Oregon were grappling on Wednesday with blazes that have blackened more than 200 square miles of terrain across the Pacific Northwest, forcing hundreds of residents to flee their homes.

In Washington, some 1,700 firefighters worked to contain a pair of fires that have charred a combined 85,000 acres east of the Cascade Range, destroying at least three homes and several outbuildings, said state Emergency Management Division spokesman Mark Clemens.

The so-called Colockum Tarps fire, which broke out on Saturday morning and quickly spread through dry brush near Malaga, had burned over some 60,000 acres of mountain slopes toward the Columbia River by Wednesday afternoon, Clemens said.

Air tankers have dropped water and flame retardant to protect neighborhoods and power lines, he said. The Colockum, only about 8 percent contained, has forced 150 people to evacuate their homes south of Wenatchee.

Clemens said crews had managed to contain around 60 percent of the second blaze, known as the Mile Marker 28 fire, that erupted on July 24 and quickly spread over 26,000 acres, prompting the evacuation of 69 homes. Those residents were allowed to return home as of Wednesday.

Officials said the causes of the fires were under investigation, and that they were worried about lightning-bearing thunderstorms forecast for Thursday that could ignite new blazes.

In southwestern Oregon, meanwhile, a wildfire started by lightning on July 26 that had already burned over more than 25,000 acres was threatening 500 homes. Although the flames were only about 5 percent contained, officials said they had made headway on Wednesday.

Dubbed the Douglas Complex fire, it is made up of four large fires and 55 smaller blazes.

Christie Shaw, public information officer with the Oregon Department of Forestry, said 105 homes have been evacuated and 40 more are on notice. Forty commercial buildings, 470 homes and 35 outbuildings are threatened by the fire. She said only a couple of outbuildings and two railroad trestles had been destroyed so far.

A few minor injuries have been reported among the 1,387 firefighters and support personnel battling the blaze, officials said. Crews were using 11 helicopters, 86 fire trucks, 15 bulldozers and 27 water tenders.

Marv Eells, owner of Glendale Hardware in nearby Glendale, said his store had completely sold out of garden hoses and was doing a brisk business in flashlight batteries and particle masks.

The weather has helped firefighters, with temperatures in the low 80s and 30 percent humidity. Thunderstorms are expected over the next few days, which could mean a small amount of rain as well as more lightening strikes.

The area historically was a gold-mining region and still produces timber. About half the land is privately owned and half is owned by the federal Bureau of Land Management.

(Reporting by Eric Johnson in Seattle and Teresa Carson in Portland; Writing by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Prudence Crowther)

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