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JBLM troops to help fight wildfires in Eastern Washington

A tanker helicopter used for fighting wildfires takes off in smokey conditions from a helicopter base Tuesday just outside of Chelan.
A tanker helicopter used for fighting wildfires takes off in smokey conditions from a helicopter base Tuesday just outside of Chelan. The Associated Press

Soldiers from Joint Base Lewis-McChord will help battle devastating wildfires in Eastern Washington.

It’s the first time since 2006 that active-duty troops have been mobilized as firefighters.

The National Interagency Fire Center in Boise asked the Department of Defense to provide 200 military personnel to help fight about 95 wildfires.

“Nationally, the system is pretty tapped,” said Rob Allen, the deputy incident commander for the fires around Chelan. “Everything is being used right now, so competition for resources is fierce.”

Ten crews of 20 will be deployed to the North Star Fire Complex north of Republic, according to JBLM. The solders are with the 17th Field Artillery Brigade.

Starting Wednesday, troops will be outfitted with wildland gear and receive fire-response training, which will include one day of classroom training at JBLM and one to two days of field training.

Since 1987, active-duty military personnel have been mobilized to serve as wildland firefighters 35 times. The last time was nine years ago, when a JBLM battalion fought the Tripod Complex Fires in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.

Currently, several states — including Washington, Oregon and California — have mobilized National Guard personnel to be wildland firefighters, according to JBLM.

Fire managers can enlist military help when there are not enough civilian firefighting teams, thanks to a 1975 agreement between the federal Defense, Interior and Agriculture departments.

The help can be crucial in particularly active years like this one, when the interagency center’s firefighting teams and equipment are fighting hundreds of fires across many states.

In the last two weeks alone, more than 1,500 square miles have burned in the Lower 48 states, center spokesman Ken Frederick said.

Fires in the Northwest get top priority for pinched resources.

More than 1,000 people are battling the fires near Chelan, which have burned on more than 170 square miles and destroyed an estimated 75 buildings.

Flames burned through grass, brush and timber near Chelan. Air tankers established containment lines to keep the flames from reaching downtown, and utility workers replaced burned power poles and inspected wires.

No buildings have been lost in the Chelan fires in the past two days, officials said. But nearly 1,000 people remained under mandatory evacuations.

On Tuesday, smoke was thick in the air of downtown Chelan. Particles of ash fell from the sky. Some residents wore surgical masks as they walked through town.

The firefighters sleep in the woods, get up every morning and work a full day, said Allen, the deputy incident commander.

“It’s hot. It’s dirty,” said Allen, who usually works for the Bureau of Land Management in Alaska. He said authorities were looking for all the resources they could muster.

“The military has been activated. We have National Guard here to help us out,” Allen said, adding that Canada lent resources, too, and authorities were also talking to New Zealand and Australia.

“Chelan is still at risk, but we have very significant amounts of structure protection,” said fire spokesman Brian Lawatch. “The name of the game today would be going on offense.”

The Chelan fires are about 30 percent contained, Lawatch said. That includes deliberate burnouts in some areas, plus trying to direct the fire into previously burned areas or areas with little fuel.

Staff writer Kari Plog and The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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