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‘Training kicks in’ for citizen soldiers fighting state’s record blazes

Gov. Jay Inslee, left, and Robert Ezelle, Director of the Washington Military Department’s Emergency Management Division, look on as a firefighter explains to them ongoing efforts to fight a wildfire nearby, Thursday, Aug. 27, 2015, near Chelan, Wash. The complex of fires burning throughout the area are the largest in state history.
Gov. Jay Inslee, left, and Robert Ezelle, Director of the Washington Military Department’s Emergency Management Division, look on as a firefighter explains to them ongoing efforts to fight a wildfire nearby, Thursday, Aug. 27, 2015, near Chelan, Wash. The complex of fires burning throughout the area are the largest in state history. The Associated Press

CHELAN First-time firefighter Spc. Adam Smith of the Washington National Guard sensed he and his team were in trouble last week when a wildfire near Lake Chelan sent flames towering four feet above their heads.

He and his teammates banded together and put to use the wildfire training many of them received for the first time earlier this summer.

They made it through that night, and pressed on in a string of 16-hour workdays fighting some of the largest wildfires in state history.

“The training kicks in,” said Smith, 26, an Iraq War veteran from Yakima.

“It’s just like being overseas,” added his teammate, Sgt. Casey Stockwell, 33, of Anacortes, who has worked as a military contractor in Iraq. “You’re hypersensitive, but you have that tunnel vision looking out for the guy next to you.”

They’re among the roughly 1,000 Washington National Guard members called up to fight this month’s devastating wildfires, which have scorched more than 900,000 acres around the state and forced the evacuation of hundreds of residents.

A few hundred active-duty soldiers from Joint Base Lewis-McChord were also summoned to help.

Gov. Jay Inslee on Thursday paid a visit to several National Guard firefighting positions in Central Washington and called the damage “extraordinary and painful.”

More than 2,500 firefighters and military service members from several Western states and as far away as New Zealand are working on the fires.

The only limit on resources, Inslee said, is whether the state can find more equipment and more people who have certifications to fight wildfires.

“Whatever we’ve got, we’re throwing it at the line and we’ll figure out how to pay for it later,” he said.

The Obama administration last week granted Inslee’s request for federal emergency assistance following the deaths of three Forest Service firefighters near Twisp, in Okanogan County. The declaration freed up federal disaster relief resources to help fight the fires and to assist people impacted by them.

Residents remain evacuated on the outskirts of Republic. State officials were closely watching a fire near the town of Nespelem that may cause another evacuation.

The largest single blaze is the Okanogan Complex of wildfires, which has burned more than 280,000 acres and threatened more than 5,000 homes. Fire officials said this week that it slightly topped last year’s Carlton fires in scale.

Inslee linked this summer’s fires to climate change, saying “catastrophic fires” are occurring with “increasing frequency and increasing intensity.”

He connected the fire to his campaign to persuade the Legislature to adopt proposals aimed at curbing man-made global warming, but said “that’s a fight for tomorrow.”

Fire officials are watching weather reports that suggest rain is likely to fall in Western Washington this weekend. It’s not clear whether it will bring relief to the regions damaged by the fires.

“We’re hopeful the weather’s going to give us a break,” said the Washington National Guard’s commander, Maj. Gen. Bret Daugherty.

Inslee flew to the Chelan area by helicopter from Wenatchee. His crew of National Guard pilots had to make continual adjustments to the flight plan because of heavy smoke in Central Washington, which Inslee mentioned as an indication of the hazards firefighters are facing.

“They know they’re in danger, and the danger is persistent,” he said.

On the fire lines, National Guard soldiers said they were working long days and trying to gauge the directions of fast-moving flames.

“Each day it’s a matter of trying to pick a spot and fight,” said Kurt Stitch, one of the professional firefighters who is managing a crew of National Guard soldiers.

They said they’ve been keeping up their spirits with help from Chelan residents. On many nights, volunteers have brought them hot meals to share.

The National Guard crews “are doing well,” said Lt. Col. Jim Perrin, 40, of Mill Creek. He is the commander of the 1st Squadron, 303rd Cavalry Regiment, and he’s overseeing about 400 citizen soldiers on the fires.

“They know they’re contributing to a really important fight,” Perrin said. “Morale is high.”

One of the homes nearly scorched by fire, on a slope leading into Lake Chelan, belongs to Phil Kneisley, 80. The path of the fire stopped within yards of his home. He’s slept there most nights since the fires began almost two weeks ago.

On Thursday morning, he liked the look of the crews that were working around his home and ones owned by his sons.

“The demeanor of these guys, it makes you feel more confident,” Kneisley said.

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