Three firefighters killed in Washington as wildfires spread across West

Chris Schaefer, a faller with U.S. Timber Cuters, cuts down a tree on Wednesday near Chelan, Wash. AP Photo

Three firefighters were killed and at least three others were injured Wednesday afternoon in central Washington fighting one of the more than 100 wildfires burning more than 1.1 million acres in the West, authorities told NBC News. The firefighters were killed when winds shifted unexpectedly near the towns of Twisp and Winthrop and turned back on crews fighting a small new fire, Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers said. All residents of both towns — almost 1,000 people — were ordered to evacuate immediately.

The new fire is separate from the mammoth Chelan Complex of five fires on the eastern edge of Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. The 50-acre fire began eight miles west of Twisp, a town of about 900 people, and quickly grew to 1,500 acres, the state Department of Natural Resources said. More than 70 structures have already been destroyed in the Chelan Complex, which had reached almost 70,000 acres and was only about 50 percent contained, commanders said late Wednesday afternoon.

“We’re really concerned about that weather,” Kale Casey, a spokesman for the joint incident team at the scene, told NBC station KING of Seattle.

“We’ve had no break in the hot, dry weather,” Casey said. “We’re going to see probably some impressive fire behavior in the next couple days.”

Three separate multi-fire complexes were scorching more than 163,000 acres in and around Shasta-Trinity National Forest in Northern California, the state and federal joint incident command said Wednesday on the third straight day of 100-degree-plus temperatures and very low humidity. The 45,477-acre River Complex near Denny in Trinity County remained only 18 percent contained Wednesday, commanders said. The towns of Daily Ranch, Bell Flat, Hoboken and Quinby, in addition to Denny, were under mandatory evacuation orders.

The Mad River Complex — formed this week by the merger of two other multi-fire complexes in Trinity and Humboldt counties — was churning through 60,424 acres and was reported to be 37 percent to 65 percent contained depending on the location. Mandatory evacuations were in effect for about two dozen homes in the Forest Glen area. The six-fire, 22,367-acre South Complex in Trinity County, meanwhile, was reported 40 percent contained. All national forestlands within the fire areas were closed, the National Forest System said.

The incident command agency said efforts to contain the fires were being seriously hampered by daily temperature inversions — in which thick hot smoke soars into the sky as cool morning air burns off. The towering plumes of smoke have grounded all aerial assets except for one plane that’s being sent up with an infrared camera to see through the smoke and send information to commanders on the ground.

Oregon’s biggest problem was the 48,201-acre Canyon Creek Complex of fires in Grant County, which was burning out of control Wednesday. So far, 36 homes and 50 other structures have been destroyed or damaged, and at least 500 other structures are threatened. For the first time ever, state officials banned all burning on state-run land across Oregon — including candles.

“It’s devastating. You really don’t have a lot of time to think about it,” Eva Harris of Canyon City told NBC station KTVZ of Bend.

“I helped one of my neighbors evacuate, and I was so glad that they were safe,” Harris said. “And then I still had to go up and see my own place. I lost two of the outbuildings — and that’s just OK, because I still have a home.”

The Defense Department said Tuesday that it will mobilize 200 active-duty service members to help fight the fires, the first time it has taken that step in nearly a decade.

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