August 17, 2015 4:50 pm
Updated: August 17, 2015 7:30 pm

Thousands flee as wildfires wreak havoc in Washington and Idaho


WATCH ABOVE: Ongoing wildfires in western states are to blame for residents having to flee their homes and houses being burned to the ground. Jackson Proskow has the story.

SPOKANE, Wash. – Big wildfires burning Monday near the central Washington resort town of Chelan were taking a toll on the region’s main economic engines — tourism and the apple industry.

Visitors stayed away and a big fruit warehouse filled with apples was destroyed by the fires, imperiling hundreds of jobs.

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Several large fires burning near Chelan have scorched more than 155 square miles, destroyed an estimated 50 homes Friday and Saturday and forced about 1,500 residents to flee. Scores of homes remain threatened.

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The Chelan fires were just some of the many destructive blazes burning throughout the Northwest. In Northern Idaho, more than 40 homes were lost near the town of Kamiah and in Oregon a lightning-sparked blaze on the Malheur National Forest has grown to more than 60 square miles and has destroyed at least 26 homes.

So many fires are burning across the West that the National Interagency Fire Center announced Monday that 200 active-duty military troops are being called in to help. They will be sent to a fire on Aug. 23.

The blazes near Chelan, about 180 miles east of Seattle, are burning through grass, brush and timber, said fire spokeswoman Janet Pierce. The fires remain uncontained, she said.

“Today our focus is on structure protection,” Pierce said Monday.

The flames come in the midst of the summer tourist season in the scenic town located along Lake Chelan in the Cascade Range. The fires also threaten apple orchards and packing warehouses in the heart of the state’s apple belt during what has been a summer of drought in the Northwest.

WATCH: Woman dies in Idaho while attempting to escape from wildfire

Chelan Fruit lost one of its major fruit packing warehouses in Chelan to wildfire on Friday. The warehouse contained 1.8 million pounds of apples that were lost and employed some 800 people, said Mac Riggan, director of marketing for the company.

The employees are being sent to Chelan Fruit’s other facilities in the region, Riggin said.

“‘Our other plant in Chelan is fully operational,” he said.

Fire spokesman Wayne Patterson said air tankers established lines to keep the flames from reaching downtown Chelan.

READ MORE: Drone over Testalinden Creek fire halts air firefighting efforts

Meanwhile, the Washington National Guard joined the firefighting effort after a request for assistance from the Washington Department of Natural Resources.

WATCH: A brutal heat wave and drought are to blame in helping fuel dozens of wildfires in western states. Chris Martinez reports.

Two Black Hawk helicopters arrived Friday and five 20-person hand crews arrived Sunday evening to join 350 firefighters battling one of the state’s most active fires, Cougar Creek, on the southeastern slopes of Mount Adams.

“The Guard’s help now is vital,” said Mary Verner, Washington state DNR’s deputy for wildfire.

“We’ve been expecting another devastating wildfire season, and have had our personnel and equipment ready so we can get them out the door the moment we’re asked for help,” said Maj. Gen. Bret Daugherty, commander of the Washington National Guard.

In northern Idaho on Monday more than 700 firefighters along with 40 fire engines and four helicopters were trying to protect homes from flames but residents along an 11-mile section of U.S. Highway 12 were told to be ready to flee.

On the Idaho-Oregon border some 800 firefighters had a giant 443-square-mile wildfire 70 per cent contained. However, fire officials warned that strong winds and low humidity, which can cause extreme fire activity, were likely to hit southern Idaho throughout most of Monday. The week-old fire has scorched grassland needed for cattle and also primary habitat for sage grouse, a bird under consideration for federal protections.

Better weather helped firefighters battling wildfires in eastern Oregon. Though the fires are far from contained, higher humidity and lighter winds slowed the spread of the flames Sunday.

© 2015 The Canadian Press

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