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Wildfires Rage On, Fire Departments Running Out of Men

As the wildfires in the northwest rage on, many tribal communities, along with neighboring communities, are running out of fire fighters.
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Fires on Idaho’s Nez Perce Reservation have subsided and are reported to be in “mop-up phase.” Such is not the case farther west, on the Colville and Yakama reservations.

The Colville fire, called the North Star Fire, is continuing to expand, growing from 155,000 acres on Tuesday to 168,539 by Wednesday morning and still remains at just 5 percent contained with 648 fire fighters assigned to it. Timothy Evans, a Public Information Officer for that fire, said they dropped 3,000 gallons of fire retardant east of Owhi Lake which is on Colville Reservation lands. “It was a big eye-opener,” he said. “People saw a pretty big plane come through and five drops happened last night.”

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A level 3 evacuation notice started at 9 a.m. Wednesday, August 26 for areas near Republic, Washington which is just north of the Colville Reservation. A Level 3 evacuation means current conditions are an immediate threat to life and safety and persons there are advised to evacuate immediately. Evans explained there are plans to do a “burnout operation” and want people out of harm’s way while this takes place. “We have a small window of time. We are expecting a wind event along with thunderstorm activity on Thursday so it’s very time sensitive.”

The Cougar Creek Fire on the Yakama Reservation also continues to expand. That fire started on August 10 and expanded rapidly. By the 12th it was about 1,500 acres in size and then grew to almost 6,000 acres overnight – continuing to double in size almost daily. Allan Lebovitz is a Public Information Officer assigned to that fire and he said the fire, as of August 26 was 37,900 acres. Of that, an estimated 26,000 acres are Yakama Nation lands. The remainder includes some Forest Service Wilderness Area lands and some Department of Natural Resources State Lands.

RELATED: Wildfires Scorching Northwest, Including Tribal Lands

Lebovitz explained that on Monday they began burn out operations including tribal lands. “That takes us back to lava fields on Mount Adams where we hope to corral the head of the fire. We pursued a very aggressive operation there [Tuesday].”

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The number of wild land fires throughout the northwest has stretched availability of manpower to the limit. Crews have even been brought in from New Zealand and Australia to help battle fires. “Our crews were getting stretched very thin,” Lebovitz commented Wednesday afternoon. “Last evening BIA came through with a 20-person Yakama Nation crew out of the blue. They came in on the firing operation last night and also to work on containing spot fires. That allowed us to pull some of the team managed crews off the fire so they get out early this morning. That was absolutely critical to our success.”

RELATED: Wildfires Scorch More Than 500 Square Miles on Reservations in Northwest

“We probably have about half the resources we’d normally have on a fire of this size and complexity. That’s all about the situation in the northwest right now, just not enough resources to go around. There’s been an exceptional level of coordination and cohesion among all these organizations to get this job done,” he said.

Numbers change but 80 firefighters and 10 management staff from the Yakama Tribe have been involved plus 6 engines and one dozer. These are in addition to the 20 that hadn’t earlier been registered.

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Lebovitz provided another example of this coordination when the town of Glenwood was threatened. “It was absolutely critical that we focus our efforts on protecting the town which was not on Yakama Reservation lands. “The Yakama Nation contributed significantly as team members to that effort.”

When fires were contained near Glenwood the efforts switched to the northern and northeastern areas to keep it from spreading into Yakama Nation timberlands. That is where the majority of resources are currently being focused.