US wildfires force officials to mobilize active-duty infantry

The Pentagon plans to send 200 active-duty soldiers to help fight wildfires raging across some 1.4 million acres in nine states, officials said this week.

Nearly 28,000 firefighters and support personnel are battling more than 80 large wildfires in California, Idaho, Oregon, Montana, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Washington and Nevada, according to The Army’s soldiers, from Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state, will fight fires in Oregon’s Umpqua National Forest.

“Weather and fuel conditions are predicted to continue to be conducive to wildfire ignitions and spread in most of the western U.S. through September — and in parts of the Northern Rockies and California through October,” said Jennifer Jones, spokeswoman for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, a federal agency that coordinates wildfire fighting.

“The soldiers will be organized into ten crews of twenty persons each,” Jones said, “all of which will be sent to the Umpqua North Complex, which is burning on approximately 30,000 acres on the Umpqua National Forest.”

Jones said some 28,000 firefighters and support staff are involved in fighting the blazes that have raged much of the summer.

The fires have sent smoke into cities from Seattle to Denver — prompting health warnings and cancellations of outdoor activities for children by many school districts.

In Oregon, about 600 National Guard troops have been assigned to fight the most devastating fires that the state has seen in more than a decade.

At times people in Oregon have had to cover their faces to shield themselves from the smoke and the ashes falling on them.

"You can't really stand outside without getting rained on" by ash, said Joanna Fisher as she walked to work at a Troutdale, Ore., naturopathic clinic wearing a red bandanna around her mouth to keep the ash out of her lungs.

A 16-square-mile fire east of Portland forced hundreds of home evacuations. Embers from the fire drifted across the Columbia River sparking blazes in neighboring Washington state.

The wildfire grew rapidly late Monday and overnight, giving authorities just minutes to warn residents on the Oregon side of the river to leave their homes. Authorities say they believe the blaze, which started Saturday, was caused by a 15-year-old boy and friends using fireworks. They've identified a suspect but have made no arrests.

Outside California's Yosemite National Park, a wind-fueled fire made its way deeper into a grove of 2,700-year-old giant sequoia trees on Labor Day. Officials said the fire had gone through about half the grove but had not killed any trees.

Giant sequoias are resilient and can withstand low-intensity fires. The blaze burned brush and left scorch marks on some big trees that survived, said Cheryl Chipman, a fire information officer.

Elsewhere in northern California, a fire destroyed 72 homes and forced the evacuation of about 2,000 people from their houses.