TWISP, Wash. – Reduced winds on Saturday helped firefighters gain the upper hand against a series of giant wildfires in north-central Washington that earlier left three firefighters dead.
The Okanogan Complex of wildfires was measured at 355 square miles on Saturday, about 100 miles larger than Friday, fire spokesman Rick Isaacson said.
But the flames were moving away from population centers in Okanogan County, which by land area is the largest in Washington state.
Thousands of people in the county remained under evacuation orders of various levels after strong winds drove flames across parched ground earlier this week.
Brad Craig of Omak was told to evacuate on Wednesday, but he kept coming back to check on his home. "I was coming over several times a day to check on it," Craig said.
On Saturday, he found flames perhaps 30 yards from his back deck. With the help of firefighters, he beat back the flames and was confident he had saved his house.
"I'm feeling a whole lot better than I was three hours ago," Craig said.
Sheriff Frank Rogers said it was too early to say how many homes had burned in the county of 5,300 square miles. The official tally of three homes and 33 other structures lost was very preliminary, he said.
"That'll take weeks," Rogers said. "I know we are going to have quite a few."
These fires are burning only one or a handful of homes at a time, not entire neighborhoods, Rogers said. "It's not 45 or 50 in one spot," he said.
Resources were so strained that on Saturday fire officials began providing basic fire training to volunteers who have machinery like backhoes and bulldozers so they can help dig fire lines.
Meanwhile, a second of the four firefighters injured in a wildfire on Wednesday has been transferred to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, the Northwest's major burn center. The firefighter was transferred Friday night and is listed in satisfactory condition, Harborview spokeswoman Susan Gregg said Saturday.
Gregg did not release the firefighter's identity or the extent of his injuries, but she said he was a 47-year-old man from the Okanogan area.
"His thoughts are with the other injured firefighters and those who died," Gregg said.
Three firefighters were killed and four injured when flames overtook them Wednesday while they were battling the Okanogan Complex. Another firefighter remains in critical condition at Harborview with burns over 60 percent of his body.
Officials have said the injured firefighters were trying to escape the flames on foot.
The firefighter who was newly admitted to Harborview is an employee of the state Department of Natural Resources, agency spokesman Bob Redling said. He was initially treated and released from a hospital in Okanogan, and then asked to go to Harborview, Redling said.
Three firefighters — Tom Zbyszewski, Richard Wheeler and Andrew Zajac — died Wednesday when flames consumed their crashed vehicle as they tried to escape the fire.
On Saturday, winds that blew at 35 mph or more earlier in the week let up. "The winds have died down," said Angela Seydel, spokeswoman for Okanogan County Emergency Management.
Flames on Saturday were moving away from population centers in the county of 41,000 people, Rogers said. "Things are pretty good," he said.
About 50 volunteers showed up at Omak City Hall on Saturday morning to receive training so they can help with the firefighting effort. Most were ranchers or loggers who had their own heavy equipment.
They went to a classroom to be briefed on fire safety and were taught how to deploy emergency fire shelters. The volunteers would be called up sometime next week, said Joe Smillie, a spokesman for the state Department of Natural Resources.