Wildfire Season Flares Up Early In The Pacific Northwest

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Wildfire season has intensified early in the Pacific Northwest. Oregon and Washington are turning to the federal government for assistance in fighting the fires and cleaning up the mess left behind.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

The Carlton Complex fire, the largest in the history of Washington state, is now about two - thirds contained. The summer's wildfire season intensified early in the Pacific Northwest. Hundreds of homes have burned and hot dry conditions mean additional fires are likely. Oregon and Washington have spent millions of dollars fighting both the Carlton Complex fire and the Moccasin Hill fire in southern Oregon and cleaning up the damage they've left behind. Chris Lehman of the Northwest News Network reports.

CHRIS LEHMAN, BYLINE: The Moccasin Hill fire came quickly toward Julie Moseley's home near Sprague River, Oregon.

JULIE MOSELEY: All I could grab was just my three cats and whatever else and that's it. You know, the fire was right there and we had to go and ready to go and I was scared and didn't know what else to get, you know.

LEHMAN: Moseley left so fast she even forgot her dentures.

MOSELEY: Well, they got burned up in the fire because I didn't get them.

LEHMAN: The next time she saw her home of 25 years it was burnt to the ground.

MOSELEY: It's just a shambles. I mean, it's nothing. I mean it's - doesn't even look like the same place.

LEHMAN: Moseley's was among 20 homes lost during the Moccasin hellfire. In neighboring Washington state the enormous Carlton Complex blaze destroyed more than 300 homes. Washington Governor Jay Inslee toured the devastation.

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GOVERNOR JAY INSLEE: Our state is stretched beyond imagination.

LEHMAN: Inslee says what's worse, the fires came early.

INSLEE: Typically the fire season doesn't really get going until August. So, we have at least two more months in the fire season and we have already burned twice as many acres as the average.

LEHMAN: Both Washington and Oregon have seen a rapid escalation in wildfires this season. Rod Nichols of the Oregon Department of Forestry says, four times as many acres have burned so far than the average for this point in the summer.

ROD NICHOLS: The big factor in Oregon is all this lightning.

LEHMAN: And there's been a lot of that in the Northwest this summer. Nichols says combine that with the relatively dry winter in the Cascade Mountains and...

NICHOLS: This year because the snowpack was smaller and it melted off earlier, we started to see fires fairly early in the late spring in those high-altitude areas.

LEHMAN: In fact Nichols says there were indications as far back as January that this was shaping up to be a challenging year. That's when crews battled a series of rare wintertime wildfires in Oregon.

NICHOLS: Well, we had some odd situations where our firefighters were out there trying to draw water from local lakes and ponds and they were frozen over.

LEHMAN: In some parts of Oregon the snowpack disappeared an entire month earlier than usual. And people in fire prone parts of the state noticed.

SUMMER SWAGER: We knew it was going to be one of the worst fire seasons.

LEHMAN: Summer Swager says the area around her Southern Oregon home was bone dry much earlier than normal. When the flames approached, she and her husband found shelter out of harm's way only to see footage of their house burning on TV. She says the devastation took this year's fire season to a whole new level.

SWAGER: Almost everybody out here's seen fire. Have we seen loss of homes like this? Not really.

LEHMAN: Officials in Oregon are seeking federal help. President Obama has already issued a disaster declaration for the Washington wildfires. That paves the way for federal aid in fighting the fires there. For NPR News, I'm Chris Lehman in Salem, Oregon.

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