August 17, 2015 / 6:45 PM / 4 years ago

U.S. Army troops mobilized to help fight Western wildfires

SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - The U.S. Army mobilized soldiers on Monday to reinforce civilian firefighters stretched thin by dozens of major wildfires roaring largely unchecked across the West, with more than 100 homes reduced to ruins in several states.

Firefighters prepare to battle the Wolverine wildfire near Chelan, Washington, in this U.S. Forest Service picture taken August 16, 2015. REUTERS/US Forest Service/Handout

The 200 troops deployed from Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, Washington, are to be organized into 10 firefighting crews of 20 each, all of whom will be sent to a single fire yet to be determined, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

Fire managers requested the mobilization - the first of its kind since 2006 - as crews from federal, state and local agencies struggled to contain many of the wildfires that have charred more than 1 million acres (405,000 hectares) of the West amid a heat wave gripping the drought-parched region.

More than 29,000 civilian fire personnel already were deployed throughout the West, most of them on front-line ground crews. Property losses were concentrated in Idaho, Oregon and Washington, with 108 homes confirmed as destroyed among those three states alone since Friday, authorities said.

Among the areas hardest hit was northern Idaho, where an elderly evacuee was killed and at least 50 homes were leveled by a cluster of fires that have raged along the Clearwater River in and around the Nez Perce Indian Reservation since last week.

The so-called Clearwater Complex of fires has scorched more than 50,000 acres (20,000 hectares) of timber and brush and prompted the evacuation of more than 100 homes from the vicinity of the logging towns of Orofino and Kamiah, authorities said.

The fatality was identified as Cheryl Wissler, 70, who was trying to secure her backyard chickens before fleeing with her husband when she fell and hit her head, according to Idaho County Sheriff Doug Giddings.

Two nights later, loggers and farmers came to the assistance of volunteer firefighters battling to save property and livestock in Kamiah and surrounding communities.

“I saw guys, just farmers and ranchers who’d come in from other towns to help, running through flames to cut open barbed-wire fences and opening barns to let animals out,” Undersheriff Jim Gorges said.

‘STRETCHED VERY, VERY THIN’

He was part of an ad-hoc team who rode to the rescue on all-terrain vehicles, a motorized raft and other equipment on Sunday to evacuate several firefighters trapped between the banks of the Clearwater River and encroaching flames, Gorges said.

The extent of strained manpower was also evident as fire managers for the blaze ordered reinforcements of ground crews and aircraft on Monday, only to see their requests returned for a third straight day marked, “UTF,” for “unable to fill,” said Ryan Greendeer, a spokesman for the Clearwater command.

“Our resources are stretched very, very thin,” he said. “Each incident is having to make do with what is available, not what’s needed.”

The Clearwater was one of 14 major wildfires burning across Idaho and one of about 95 tallied in seven Western states, the bulk of them in Washington, Oregon, Montana and California, the Interagency Fire Center said. Little if any containment had been achieved on many of those blazes on Monday, the agency reported.

The Pacific Northwest states of Oregon and Washington tallied more than 30 large conflagrations together and some of the highest property losses.

A cluster of wildfires dubbed the Canyon Creek Complex in central Oregon destroyed 26 dwellings over the weekend and continued to threaten hundreds of other structures on Monday, authorities said.

At least 32 homes were leveled by a separate series of fires burning in north-central Washington state on the outskirts of Chelan, a resort town at the southern tip of Lake Chelan, the state’s largest natural lake, a sheriff’s spokesman said.

The spokesman, Rich Magnussen, said the toll of property losses there was likely to climb as fire teams reached areas that were still burning on Monday.

Additional reporting by Courtney Sherwood from Portland, Oregon; Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman from Los Angeles; Editing by Sandra Maler

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