Western wildfires: Soldiers turn into firefighters to help battle infernos

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MONTEBELLO, California — You know the infernos are out of control when 25,000 firefighters aren’t enough to stop them.

Soldiers will join the ranks of firefighters as almost 100 raging wildfires continue torching 10 Western states.

About 200 active duty military personnel will help battle blazes in Western states, the National Interagency Fire Center said. It’s the first time soldiers have fought wildfires since 2006.

About 95 fires have destroyed hundreds of homes and scorched 1.1 million acres in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, California, Nevada and Colorado, the NIFC said.

The soldiers will handle “quiet parts of the fire,” NIFC spokesman Ken Frederick said

“That’s important because it frees up our more experienced crews to handle more complex dangerous fire situations,” he said. Soldiers “could be mopping up, watching for and waiting to put out spot fires and digging fire line.”

The soldiers will come from the 17th Field Artillery Brigade, 7th Infantry Division at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington — one of the worst-hit states.

Active duty soldiers have been used to fight wildfires 35 times since 1987, the NIFC said.

“The U.S. military has been a key partner in wildland firefighting for decades, and we greatly appreciate their willingness to provide us with soldiers to serve as firefighters,” said Aitor Bidaburu, chairman of the National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group.

The military is also providing C-130s equipped to drop large quantities of fire retardant.

Here’s a breakdown of what’s happening in four of the most devastated states:

CALIFORNIA

Four years of drought have helped make California a tinder box for at least 19 wildfires burning across state.

One of the state’s largest blazes, the Route Complex, has torched 28,401 acres and was 28% contained Monday, authorities said.

The fire, which affected areas around Mad River, Dinsmore and Hyampom, started last month following a lightning storm.

In Montebello, a suspected arson caused a wildfire that leaped across roads.

Another blaze, the Mad River Complex, comprises seven fires that started last month after a lightning storm hit northern California.

By Monday, it had burned about 23,000 acres and was 65% contained. Two buildings were destroyed and five people injured.

Through August 8, there have been 4,382 fires that burned 117,960 acres, according to CalFire. Through that date in 2014, there were 3,047 fires that burned 87,988 acres.

IDAHO

The Soda Fire has razed more than 265,000 acres in Owyhee County, in the southeast corner of the state. It was 25% contained with 860 people working to bring it under control, according to the national fire-tracking website InciWeb.

The cause of the fire is unknown.

The Lawyer Complex Fire near Kamiah, in northwest Idaho, has destroyed 50 homes, according to the state’s Department of Lands.

So far, it is 15% contained, and includes the Old Greer, Kamiah Gulch, Lawyer 6 and Adams Grade fires, across a combined total of around 21,000 acres.

OREGON

Gov. Kate Brown has invoked the Emergency Conflagration Act in response to the Canyon Creek Complex Fire, which has burned more than 40,000 acres in eastern Oregon.

The declaration authorizes the state fire marshal to mobilize fire resources from around the state to protect homes. There are 14 major fires in Oregon, the governor said.

At least 26 homes have been destroyed in the Canyon Creek fire, the governor’s office said, with 500 more homes threatened. About 300 people have evacuated.

The fire started July 17 and is expected to grow 1,000-3,000 acres daily, depending on weather conditions, the governor’s office said.

One homeowner said he was helpless to stop the fire.

“There was nothing we could do — it was gone,” Canyon Creek resident Dean Fox told CNN affiliate KTVZ. “Embers were straight at me. We would have to keep hosing ourselves down, because it was so hot.”

The fire was caused by lightning. About 475 firefighters are trying to bring it under control.

WASHINGTON

Almost two dozen fires are scorching Washington state.

Wind-pushed fires around Chelan and McNeil Canyon, a resort area in central Washington state, burned 38,793 acres and were 30% contained, according to InciWeb. About 50 homes have been destroyed and 1,500 people are under evacuation orders.

David D’Armond praised crews for saving his home as intense flames loomed.

“They came quick,” he told CNN affiliate KCPQ. “The winds kicked up, and it was unstoppable.”

The fires dealt a painful blow to the local economy when it destroyed the processing plant for Chelan Fruit Inc., the city’s largest employer. The fire also burned a winery and lumber yard, KIRO said.

Paul Smythe of Chelan lost almost everything when the fire destroyed his home in Chelan.

“I put everything I could in my car, got the animals and we bailed out,” he told CNN affiliate KCPQ.

The next day he drove by his house and “everything was gone. I’m trying not to think of all the stuff I lost. Not only does that house go out, cabins that have been in the family since 1935 are gone too.”

Lightning strikes started the fires Friday morning, said Jim Duck of the Central Washington Interagency Communication Center.

Eleven separate wildfires forced the closure of the Pacific Crest Trail between Glacier Pass and Holman Pass.

Over 1,000 people have fled Chelan County as the wildfires destroyed homes, CNN affiliate KPHO said.