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Governor calls fires in Washington a 'slow-motion disaster'

Blazes in Washington state have burned an area nearly the size of Rhode Island

The massive fires burning in Washington state are a "slow-motion disaster," Gov. Jay Inslee said Thursday as a U.S. Senate committee met in Washington to collect information on blazes that have burned an area nearly the size of Rhode Island.

Inslee spoke in Chelan before travelling to meet firefighters on the lines that he said were exhausted but committed to stop the blazes.

"They know they're in danger and this danger is persistent," he said. He met with about 20 members of the National Guard fighting a fire near Lake Chelan. 

"Trying to predict what the fire is going to do is one of the hardest things," guardsmen Casey Stockwell said.

Meanwhile, fire experts addressing a Seattle field hearing of the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee urged lawmakers to boost federal funding for local wildfire prevention efforts.

The fires have stretched resources thin, prompting a rare enlistment of reinforcements from the U.S. military and as far afield as Australia.

An upcoming bipartisan bill will include the proposal to create a national program to train volunteer firefighters, said Washington's Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell. Cantwell, who called the hearing after touring the blaze site, added that the bill will also upgrade the U.S. Forest Service's air tanker fleet and bolster the rural communication infrastructure.

Dense smoke from the big fires burning east of the Cascade Range on Thursday grounded helicopters and airplanes that had been aiding fire crews in the region.

It was also causing respiratory problems for people far from the fire lines. In Spokane County, which has nearly 500,000 residents, the air quality was deemed unhealthy.

Crews battling a 262-square mile blaze near the town of Republic, south of the Canadian border, also were dealing with smoke as well as flames, fire spokesman Donnie Davis said.

"Everybody up here is rubbing their eyes," he said. "It's brutal."

A wildfire about 70 miles southwest in Okanogan — the largest blaze ever recorded in the state — grew to nearly 438 square miles.

"We're still socked in," fire spokesman Rick Isaacson said. "There's maybe one mile of visibility."

Inslee said the fires were more spread out across the state than last year and had burned about 1,144 square miles — an area nearly the size of Rhode Island.

"This is not just a local fire, it's a statewide slow-motion disaster," he said.

So far, officials have counted 40 homes and 40 outbuildings destroyed by the Okanogan blaze. The fire is about 17 percent contained by more than 1,300 firefighters.

"You can imagine how stretched thin everybody is," said Dan Dallas, deputy incident commander of the Okanogan fire. "We're all working without the resources that in a normal year — which I don't think there is such a thing anymore — that we might have."

Several Western states — California, Montana and Idaho — are also seeing a severe fire season with some 11,600 square miles scorched so far. Authorities have warned that smoke from these fires is creating hazardous air quality and that the choking haze could soon spread north into Canada.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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