Three firefighters were killed and four others injured in central Washington Wednesday battling one of the more than 100 wildfires burning across at least 1.1 million acres in the West, authorities told NBC News.
The fatalities occurred 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.
"It was a hellstorm up here," Rogers told KXLY-TV. "The fire was racing and the winds were blowing in every direction."
All residents of both towns — almost 1,000 people — were ordered to evacuate immediately.
"We are devastated by the tragic loss of three of our Forest Service firefighters," said Mike Williams, forest supervisor on the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. "Our hearts and prayers go out to the families and fellow crewmembers of these brave firefighters."
Gov. Jay Inslee said in a prepared statement: "They gave their lives to protect others. It was their calling, but the loss for their families is immense and I know the community will come together to support them."
White House spokesman Eric Schultz said President Barack Obama had been briefed on the situation. "On behalf of a grateful nation, the president's thoughts and prayers are with the families of these brave Americans," he said.
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. It's separate from the Okanogan Complex in Okanogan County, all of which was under a general evacuation advisory, with the 200 or so residents of Conconully previously ordered to leave. That fire was at almost 31,000 acres with only 20 percent containment.
Winds were expected to increase substantially over the next 48 hours, and Okanagon County Emergency Management officials warned residents to monitor local radio and weather reports for updates.
Another five-fire Washington blaze called the Chelan Complex had reached almost 70,000 acres on the eastern edge of Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest and was only about 50 percent contained, commanders said late Wednesday afternoon.
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, state officials banned all burning on state-run land across Oregon — including candles.
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.
The biggest is the Soda fire, which has eaten up 283,686 acres straddling the eastern Oregon and western Idaho borders. But it's now 95 percent contained, with crews turning to mop-up duty, incident commanders said. Of more concern are the dozens of smaller but still sizable fires burning through hundreds of thousands of acres of California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana. Among the most serious:
- The Cornet-Windy Ridge fire south of Baker City, at 103,540 acres and 45 percent containment.
- The County Line 2 fire on Warm Springs Indian Reservation, at 62,696 acres and 43 percent containment. Commanders said a red flag warning for hot, dry air could create what they called "critical fire behavior."
- The Stouts Creek fire south of Milo, at 25,324 acres and 74 percent containment. The fire, which was caused by someone illegally mowing during prohibited hours on July 30, has forced the closing of all public lands in Douglas County administered by the federal Bureau of Land Management.
- The North Star fire 25 miles north of Coulee Dam, at 45,632 acres and burning out of control. Mandatory evacuations were ordered for residents north of the town of Nespelem, from Gold Lake Road to Stepstone Road.
- The Wolverine fire three miles northwest of Lucerne, at 40,357 acres and 30 percent containment. The villages of Holden, Stehekin and 25-Mile were described as under threat.
- The four-fire Kettle Complex in northern Ferry County, at 39,570 acres with no report of containment. Parts of Colville National Forest Area are closed and Washington National Guard troops are on the scene, where hot, dry weather is expected fuel the fire into Thursday.
The Rough fire 2½ miles southwest of Spanish Mountain in Fresno County, at 30,901 Acres and only 3 percent containment. U.S. Forest Service and Kings Canyon National Park campgrounds and trailheads were closed, and 2,500 campers, hikers, employees and residents have been evacuated from the Hume Lake area. Commanders said heavy smoke had forced them to use infrared imagery to even estimate the fire's size, .
The Clearwater Complex near Kamiah, 64,150 acres and 25 percent containment. Forty-two homes have been destroyed so far, commanders said.