Wildfires explode in size as high winds blast region

TWISP, Wash. - A massive complex of blazes that killed three firefighters in north-central Washington state has grown by more than 100 square miles in a day as fierce winds howled across the region, and now President Obama has declared the area a disaster area.

Fire spokesman Rick Isaacson said early Friday that the wildfires have grown to just over 252 square miles since Thursday morning. He says they are largely burning uncontrolled as flames keep jumping fire lines, spurned by high winds gusting as high as 30-35 mph

Out-of-control blazes in north-central Washington have destroyed buildings, but the situation is so chaotic that authorities have "no idea" how many homes may have been lost.

Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers said Friday that "we have lost them, but I don't know how many."

They have ordered the partial evacuation of the town of Okanogan, which has 2,500 residents. Isaacson says even the fire base camp in Okanogan has been told to be prepared to evacuate.

Those evacuations are on top of previous orders to evacuate the towns of Twisp, Winthrop and Tonasket. Okanogan emergency managers have since lowered evacuations in Tonasket and Twisp to Level 2, which means residents can be there, but be prepared to evacuate at moment's notice.

Not everyone who was told to leave was willing to go.

"I've been up for like 40 hours, and I was very nervous, very concerned because (the fire) was going to take everything we have, us and the rest of our friends," said Al Dodson, who stayed home despite evacuation orders in Twisp, 40 miles west of Okanogan.

Nearly 29,000 firefighters - 3,000 of them in Washington - are battling some 100 large blazes across the drought-and heat-stricken West, including Idaho, Oregon, Montana and California. Thirteen people have died.

There are more firefighters on the ground this season than ever before, and the U.S. government is spending more than $150 million a week on fire suppression, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said.

It's not enough. Additional personnel and equipment were being brought in from abroad, and Washington state officials have called for volunteers who own and can operate equipment such as backhoes and bulldozers.

"Coordinators will review citizens' offers for resources and direct them to where they can be most beneficial," the state Department of Natural Resources said. Volunteers could start applying Friday at centers in the communities of Omak and Colville.

It is the first time the state has asked for volunteers as an explosive fire season. It comes even after fire managers from Australia and New Zealand were recruited to help combat blazes in the West.

In addition, President Barack Obama signed an emergency declaration authorizing federal help for 11 Washington counties and four Native American tribes.

The declaration orders federal aid to supplement state and local response efforts.

There were 820 firefighters fighting the blazes Friday, two days after flames overran firefighters, killing three and injuring four.

Editor's Note: The weather gauge at Omak's Airport recorded several gusts of wind between 55-60 mph, but the National Weather Service now says they believe their sensor is malfunctioning and that true wind gusts were in the 30-35 mph range.