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2014 wildfire season worse than usual across the West (+video)

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(Read caption) Winds push massive Washington wildfire
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A massive, swiftly-moving wildfire has destroyed some 100 homes in several small communities in Washington State northeast of Seattle, sending residents fleeing under mandatory evacuation orders.

Summer is always fire season throughout much of the West. But in 2014, it started sooner than usual as blazes large and small flare up across the drought-stricken region.

“Significant fire activity continues in the Northwest,” according to the most recent report from the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise. “Seven new large fires were reported [Thursday], three in Oregon, two in Washington and one each in Louisiana and Arizona. Hot, dry, and windy conditions caused several fires in Oregon and Washington to gain thousands of acres. Residents in many communities near these fires have been evacuated. Fire managers continue to watch the forecasts closely and are prepared for another busy day.”

As of the weekend, there were 32 large active fires, most of those in the Pacific Northwest (18 in Oregon, four in Washington). So far this year, firefighters have had to deal with 30,151 blazes covering a total of 1,146,493 acres, and the forecast is for more of the same, according to the fire center:

“Above normal fire potential will persist over much of California, the Northwest and the Great Basin in July…. In August, above normal fire potential will continue over most of California, Nevada, Oregon, Washington and Idaho.” Due to severe drought conditions, above normal fire potential will remain over Southern and Central California through October, fire officials predict.

“The vegetation is so dry, it’s generating so much heat that it’s creating extraordinary conditions,” Ken Pimlott, director of Cal Fire, told the Washington Post. 

At a news conference Friday, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said the state is working to quickly train 1,000 National Guard troops to respond to the blazes, the Seattle Times reports.

Gov. Inslee called the swiftly moving fires “overpowering” and beyond the ability of firefighters to contain right now due to dry forest conditions.

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The priority of emergency responders now is on “personal safety,” he said. “I know people have seen fires before. This is a different beast. This is a fire storm.”

Officials said the fire, known as the Carlton Complex, had blackened more than 260 square miles by Friday, up dramatically from the prior estimate of 28 square miles.

"Mother Nature is winning here," Okanogan County fire chief Don Waller told The Wenatchee World newspaper.

The largest of Oregon’s 18 major fires – known as the “Buzzard Complex” and located in the high desert central portion of the state – now totals 272,352 acres and is just 20 percent contained. Ranchers report cows and calves killed in the blaze, which was cause by a lightning strike.

In Oregon this week 180 prison inmates helped fight wildfires across the state, the Oregonian newspaper reports.

“The prisoners are trained at minimum-security prisons across Oregon and volunteer for the hazardous work,” the Oregonian’s Bryan Denson writes. “Many of them keep tuned to weather reports during the dry summer months, hoping for a chance to prove their mettle on the outside.”

"Staff and inmates who participate in the firefighting operations are trained and qualified to meet national standards, receive yearly training, and will be provided with a certification of program completion," the Department of Corrections reported.

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