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Intense wildfire season pushes crews to the limit

Throughout the Western U.S., where big wildfires have become the norm, fire managers are having a tough time keeping up with all the demands for firefighters and other resources. Everything from camp supplies to helicopters have been in short supply, but most in-demand have been well-trained crews. Special correspondent Cat Wise reports from hard-hit Washington state and Oregon.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    Nearly 10,000 firefighters and support staff are working to contain about 20 large blazes in Washington and Oregon. The region is experiencing one of the worst fire seasons on record.

    Special correspondent Cat Wise recently spent time with the men and women on Washington state's front lines, who have traveled there from all over.

  • CAT WISE:

    Fire crews in North Central Washington have had a busy summer. Nearly a million acres have burned in the region. And one of the hardest-hit areas is the hilly majestic countryside in Okanogan County, where firefighters are still hard at it and the workday begins early.

    It's still dark when crews at the Alta Lake fire camp begin gathering supplies for the long day ahead. There's a line for the pre-made boxed lunches distributed from a semi-truck. And the food tent delivers hot grub for the early risers.

  • MAN:

    Sausage and French toast?

  • MAN:

    Sounds grand. Thanks.

  • CAT WISE:

    This camp, like most fire camps, was set up in less than 48 hours. It has everything need to support some 600 firefighters and fire managers who are working to contain a group of fires in the county which have been burning since August.

  • MAN:

    Everybody have an incident action plan?

  • CAT WISE:

    At exactly 0600, 6:00 a.m., fire managers gather for the morning briefing. Crews have made good progress in recent days to contain the fires, but some areas are still very active.

  • MAN:

    We had an injury yesterday. Know your evacuation protocols. Watch out for those stump holes. Look out for those overhead hazardous. Those are the things that are going to get you.

  • CAT WISE:

    The firefighters here are all too aware of the dangers they face on a daily basis. Three of their colleagues on a nearby fire died, and another was critically injured several weeks ago. Flags at the camp remain at half-staff.

    But the work must go on, and fire trucks were soon pulling out of camp, heading to the front lines. We followed along, too, up a windy mountain road through areas that were still smoldering. We met up with a strike team from California that had recently come off a series of big fires in that state; 29-year-old Andrew May, like so many other firefighters, has had little rest since June.

  • ANDREW MAY, Cal Fire:

    My longest stretch was about 26 days. Then I was off for three-and-a-half, and have been back for about eight days now.

  • CAT WISE:

    May hustled off to join his crew, who were laying water hose through a thickly wooded area. After getting their gear ready and new instructions from their chief, the firefighters headed up a steep hill, carrying about 80 pounds of hose and equipment toward an active fire line.

    Another big job for crews is securing the edges of the fire. This 30-foot-wide fire line had been bulldozed earlier in the day, but firefighters were worried it was about to flare up again.

  • ANDREW HOSTAD, U.S. Forest Service:

    Once we get around a fire, the job isn't done.

  • CAT WISE:

    Andrew Hostad is a fire prevention specialist with the U.S. Forest Service. ANDREW HOSTAD: So much of what goes into actual firefighting isn't the glory shots with the big flames and that sort of thing; it's the head down in the dirt, digging, and really doing the really vital role of mopping up and securing that fire.

  • CAT WISE:

    More than 400 square miles have burned here in Okanogan County near the Canadian border. It's now the largest wildfire in Washington State's history. Throughout the West, where big fires have become the norm, fire managers are having a tough time keeping up with all the demands for firefighters and firefighting resources.

  • MAN:

    Evacuation levels are at level one.

  • CAT WISE:

    And nowhere is that scarcity of resources being felt more than at the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center in Portland, Oregon. Decisions are made here about where firefighting equipment and personnel will be dispatched throughout Oregon and Washington.

  • CAROL CONNOLLY, Northwest Interagency Coordination Center:

    It's been a real challenge for us to mobilize and get our resources out to where they're needed as quickly as they need them.

  • CAT WISE:

    Carol Connolly handles public affairs at the coordination center. She says basically everything, from camp supplies to helicopters, has been in short supply this year. And well-trained fire crews, known as hotshots, are really in demand. CAROL CONNOLLY: We were told about the third week of August from our national office that we're not getting any more resources. What we have inside our boundaries, that's all were getting. So that's when we share crews, and we borrow crews. And two fires that are close together, one incident commander might talk to the other and say, hey, I need one of your hotshot crews for an operational period to do a burnout. And so they will send them over and help, and send them back the next day.

  • CAT WISE:

    In fact, the wildfire season in Central Washington has been so intense this year that nearly anyone who can help is being asked to.

    About 300 heavy equipment operators were given special training so they could work on the front lines. They were part of an even larger program, the first of its kind for the state, to enlist hundreds of locals wanting to aid firefighters.

    One of those offering to help was Angela Davis, who was raised in the area and is a descendent of a local Native American tribe. Davis was assigned to the finance division at a base camp in Okanogan County.

  • ANGELA DAVIS, Fire Camp Support Staff:

    I thought I should step up and come over and help out with the firefighters protecting my native land. We look at all the people on the front lines, and they're doing their work, and we forget what really goes on behind the scenes. And that's kind of what I am taking away from this, is that every link in a chain is important.

  • CAT WISE:

    The call for help has even extended overseas.

  • JOHN COSTENARO, Australian Firefighter:

    Oh, I didn't even hesitate. As soon as I was asked, I said yes.

  • CAT WISE:

    Australian John Costenaro is one of 70 firefighters who have been sent from his country and New Zealand to assist in the efforts. That hasn't happened since another bad fire season in 2008. Costenaro, who is from Victoria, says he has a very personal reason for wanting to help the firefighters in Washington. JOHN COSTENARO: In 2009, Victoria suffered the Black Saturday fires, very severe fires, the worst in our history. And we had the Americans come over and assist us during that period. And I wanted to repay that favor, because I — they came to my hometown and helped us a great deal.

  • CAT WISE:

    He is repaying that favor now by supervising heavy equipment, like bulldozers, and walking about eight miles of fire lines a day. JOHN COSTENARO: The friendliness that the Americans have shown me and my colleagues is overwhelming. It's quite — people shaking hands with you in the street, and thanking you, and understanding you have come from another country, and it's very appreciated to be felt welcome in another country, and to assist.

  • CAT WISE:

    As crews get a better handle on the multiple fires in Central Washington, aided by recent precipitation and lower temperatures, some are now starting to shift to fires in other states. And many expect to soon head to south to California, where the state's infamous Santa Ana winds start picking up at this time of year and the fire season gets even busier.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Cat Wise in Okanogan County, Washington.

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