Washington state seeks volunteers to help fight spreading wildfires

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A spate of wildfires scorched parts of Washington state, devouring more than 16,000 acres, in July, 2015. In at least one case, strong winds have forced multiple lighting fires to morph into one, officials said.

WASHINGTON — Wildfires have consumed more than half a million acres in Washington state — and with firefighting crews stretched thin, state government is taking an unprecedented step.

Qualified citizens — not just professional firefighters — are now invited to join the battle against the blazes, the state Department of Natural Resources said on its webpage.

Volunteers must have previous firefighting experience, undergo training and work with professional firefighters in the field, the DNR said. They also must own heavy equipment, DNR’s fire twitter account said.

The state has already asked for assistance. About 700 members of the Washington National Guard and 200 active duty soldiers were called out. Three thousand citizens have already volunteered, CNN affiliate KOMO reported.

One of them is Robert Rusk. He was among 50 people, mostly ranchers and loggers, who took classroom training Saturday in hard-hit Okanogan County.

“I’m very connected to the people and the community here,” he told KOMO. “I feel responsible to do what I can.”

This is wildfire season across the nation. About 260 wildfires are burning in 17 states, mostly in the South and West.

In Washington state, 16 large fires have consumed 590,000 acres and destroyed 200 homes, according to the website of Gov. Jay Inslee.

About 520,000 acres are still burning and 12,000 other homes are threatened. Three thousand firefighting personnel are on the job.

“I want to say this is an unprecedented cataclysm in our state,” Inslee said Thursday.

Thanks to a Federal Emergency Declaration for Washington, 10 extra helicopters have arrived to drop water on the fires, Islee’s webpage said. More than 276,000 gallons of water have been poured on the fires from Blackhawk helicopters so far.

The fire in the Okanogan Complex, near where Rusk trained, is one of the state’s worst, having burned 239,733 acres and gained 12,527 acres since Saturday, reported InciWeb, a fire reporting website.

Last week, three firefighters were killed fighting the Twisp fire in Okanogan County.

One of the was Andrew Zajac, 26, whose family issued a video statement thanking supporters.

His wife, Jennifer Zajac, said: “I just want to say to all you guys out on the line, too — just stay safe, take a step back every once in a while if you need to, take those breaks. Because it’s going to be long, we’re not anywhere close to having anything wrapped up, so stay safe, keep focused. And please, everybody, come home, because that’s all we really want, is everybody home.”

The 17 states with wildfires are Alaska, Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Texas, Wyoming, Colorado, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, North Carolina and South Carolina.

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