Fire crews eye weather as heat, wind build in US west

Don Willis, with the Sun River Fire Department, talks with members of the Oregon National Guard during wildland fire training Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2015, in Salem, Ore. Gov. Kate Brown is activating additional Oregon National Guard members to help fight destructive wildfires raging across the state. (Ashley Smith/Statesman-Journal via AP)

By Nicholas K. Geranios ,AP

SPOKANE, Washington — Massive wildfires in the western U.S. have led to poor air quality across the region, causing respiratory problems for people far from the fire lines as well as grounding firefighting aircraft.

“It’s been a nightmare to breathe,” said Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers in the northwestern U.S. state of Washington.

Conditions were starting to improve Tuesday and Rogers said he could see the sun for the first time in a week.

That sun brought more heat to Washington, where firefighters kept a wary eye on rising temperatures and winds that threatened to expand what’s already the largest wildfire on record in the state.

Similar concerns existed in Southern California, where temperatures of up to 106 degrees were forecast for interior valleys and deserts — conditions that could accelerate some of the 16 fires that are still burning in the state but posing little serious risk of major destruction.

The U.S. is in the middle of a severe fire season with some 30,000 square kilometers (11,600 square miles) scorched so far. It’s only the sixth-worst going back to 1960, but it’s the most acreage burned by this date in a decade.

So many fires are burning in Washington state that managers are summoning help from abroad and 200 U.S. troops from a base in Tacoma in the first such use of active-duty soldiers in nine years.

Firefighters were grateful that 71 reinforcements had arrived from Australia and New Zealand to help lead efforts to contain the Okanogan fires along the border of Canada.

“`The Aussies are coming!” said Rick Isaacson, a spokesman for the firefighting effort.