Heartbreaking losses as Western wildfires rage

Wednesday, August 15, 2012 - 7:00am

Whipped by high winds, wildfires in central Washington state have scorched some 28,000 acres and destroyed at least 60 homes, fire officials said late Tuesday.

One of those structures was the home of Elaine Burt.

After she left her home near Ellensburg she received terrible news from a neighbor; she'd lost more than a home -- all her dogs had died, too, CNN affiliate KING-TV reported.

"They're all dead, and my house is gone," she said as her neighbor phoned her with an update. "Those poor little doggies."

Burt's chihuahuas were on the porch when the flames of the fast-moving fire came.

"All my mamas and all my big sows, all of them, they're all dead," she said.

Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire declared Kittitas and Yakima counties to be in states of emergency, according to a written statement from her office. The Washington National Guard will provide air support to the Department of Natural Resources, which is in charge of statewide firefighting efforts.

More than 800 firefighters are expected to be on the scene by Wednesday, KING reported. The blaze is 10% contained, according to incident commander Rex Reed.

Firefighters say they have their work cut out for them. The hot and dry conditions are expected to continue through the week.

"Unless Mother Nature helps us out here, we're going to be fighting this awhile," Joe Seemiller, a captain in Kittitas County Fire and Rescue told affiliate KOMO-TV.

The fire raging near Cle Elum is one of several Western fires burning this week.

Colorado paid the price earlier this summer. Now, new wildfires are burning through sagebrush, grass and beetle-killed lodgepole pines in California, Oregon, Nevada, Washington and Idaho.

In all, 62 fires, including 16 new large fires, were burning as of Tuesday, the U.S. Forest Service reported. They have destroyed dozens of homes and are threatening many more.

Washington's Taylor Bridge Fire began as a brush fire Monday afternoon. By Tuesday afternoon more than 20,000 acres, or 31 square miles, were burned.

Authorities have already evacuated between 900 people near the Taylor Bridge Fire, the governor's office said. There was no report of any injuries.

"The fire behavior I would classify as extreme," Rex Reed, the incident commander, earlier Tuesday. "Extreme fire conditions. We expect a very busy day. Very rapid rates of spread. There are multiple heads on this fire."

He said authorities were working to activate National Guard troops to assist in the operation in Kittitas County.

In Idaho, a blaze has killed a 20-year-old firefighter. Two other firefighters have been injured in Oregon and California.

Anne Veseth died Sunday while fighting the Steep Canyon Fire near Orofino, said Phil Sammon of the Forest Service. He said the death was accidental but could not confirm how it happened.

However, CNN affiliate KTVB said Veseth was killed by a falling tree.

Residents of Veseth's hometown, Moscow, remembered the young college student as someone who always gave back to community.

"This is a stark reminder of how dangerous the business is that we are in," Sammon said. "We are extremely saddened by this loss."

On Tuesday, the fire danger spiked with searing temperatures and single-digit humidity across Western states. In some places, winds were gusting up to 40 miles per hour.

More than 750 firefighters and support personnel were working in Oregon and Nevada to corral the 418,235-acre Holloway Fire, the largest of the Western wildfires ignited by a lightning strike on August 5.

"We saw huge fire whorls all night," said Fred Kaninski, fire behavior analyst for the Holloway Fire. "It was burning like daytime."

In California, a pair of fires north of San Francisco in Lake County burned 7,000 acres and were 30% contained Tuesday, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Two buildings were destroyed and one was damaged, CNN affiliate KGO reported. An additional 480 homes are threatened, and a firefighter was injured while battling the flames, said Julie Hutchinson of the state's forestry and fire department. She did not have information on the status of the injured firefighter.

Meteorologists predict the dry heat will last into next week -- not good news for firefighters. Any thunderstorms that pop up could present more bad news than good, since lightning strikes could spark more flames.

However, rain doused the killer Waldo Canyon Fire that blazed out of control through parts of Colorado for many weeks this summer. On Tuesday, Colorado was not on the national map for large fires.

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CNN's Moni Basu and John Fricke contributed to this report.
 

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