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Fire officials brief Ag secretary about Western wildfires, worry over weekend wind forecast

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PORTLAND, Oregon — Northwest fire officials told U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack that incoming cooler weather could help calm the massive blazes that threaten thousands of homes, but wind storms may cause extreme fire behavior in the interim.

Vilsack, in Portland Friday for a wildfire briefing, said 14,000 homes in Oregon and Washington are currently at risk and the Forest Service is spending $10 million a day for fire suppression in the region.

As the warm weather is being replaced this week by cooler conditions from the Pacific Ocean, the cold front could bring rain to western Oregon this weekend, but the transition to the cold front will also bring strong winds across eastern Washington and northeastern Oregon.

Any break in the weather would be welcomed by weary fire crews.

This year to date, a total of 3,382 fires have burned in Oregon and Washington — with 93 of those categorized as large fires, officials told Vilsack at the briefing. Currently, more than 10,900 firefighters in the region are battling 11 large blazes.

Vilsack said that more and more federal resources are being used to fight Western wildfires.

In 1995, he said, 16 percent of the Forest Service's budget went toward fire suppression. Today, 52 percent of the agency's budget is spent on fighting fires. In the next decade, if the trend continues, the agency estimates nearly 70 percent of its budget will go toward wildfire costs.

"No one wants our Forest Service to become one large fire department," Vilsack said.

That money isn't spent on forest thinning and other fire prevention projects. Agencies like the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service currently have to borrow funds to pay for such projects.

The problem, Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Vilsack said, is that 1 to 2 percent of the wildfires — the largest ones, which put most property at risk — are eating up a third of the firefighting budget. Since most of those fires were started by lightning, they are natural disasters like hurricanes or earthquakes and should qualify for emergency federal funds, Wyden said.

Under a measure being backed by Wyden, agencies could tap federal disaster funds only if nationwide firefighting costs reached 70 percent of the 10-year average.

Here's a look at the fires across the West:


OREGON

Structural fire crews returned to protect homes on a wildfire in eastern Oregon as National Guard and other fire crews worked to reinforce lines against winds forecast to be gusting up to 40 mph.

The Canyon Creek Complex fire, which has destroyed more than three dozen homes, covered 135 square miles Friday. The blaze is located south of John Day mostly on the Malheur National Forest.

PHOTO: A helicopter makes a water bucket drop as it flies through smoky air while fighting a wildfire that flared up in the late afternoon near Omak, Wash., Thursday, Aug. 27, 2015. Firefighters were holding their own Thursday against the largest wildfire on record in Washington state, even as rising temperatures and increased winds stoked the flames. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
A helicopter makes a water bucket drop as it flies through smoky air while fighting a wildfire that flared up in the late afternoon near Omak, Wash., Thursday, Aug. 27, 2015. Firefighters were holding their own Thursday against the largest wildfire on record in Washington state, even as rising temperatures and increased winds stoked the flames. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

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WASHINGTON

The largest wildfire in Washington state history grew by more than 22 square miles overnight, and firefighters are worried about high winds predicted for this weekend.

The Okanogan Complex of wildfires was listed at 472 square miles Friday, after windy conditions Thursday pushed the fire on a couple of runs. It is only 12 percent contained.

Officials say the fire has destroyed at least 45 primary residences, 49 cabins and 60 outbuildings. Three firefighters died battling the fire last week, and a memorial service for them is planned for Sunday in Wenatchee.


IDAHO

People in west-central Idaho near Riggins have been told to evacuate due to a wildfire that expanded to 40 square miles. Nearly 600 firefighters were working to protect structures along U.S. Highway 95 and the Salmon River.


ALASKA

Additional firefighting crews were expected to arrive Friday to help battle a wind-whipped wildfire that prompted evacuation orders for a small Kodiak Island community and destroyed a library and some other properties.

The fire erupted Thursday in Chiniak (chihn-ee-AHK'), which is about 10 miles southeast of Kodiak on the easternmost point of Kodiak Island. Kodiak Fire Chief Jim Mullican told KMXT radio (http://bit.ly/1LH6A8z) the fire was burning out of control.

The cause of the blaze wasn't immediately clear. There also was no immediately reliable estimate for its size, Kodiak City Manager Aimee Kniaziowski told the station.

Police said the library had burned down and some properties had been destroyed.


MONTANA

Firefighters cut down trees and turned on sprinklers Friday after authorities emptied the community of Essex and turned back traffic where a wildfire had spread close to a highway along the southern edge of Glacier National Park.

The 1.7-square-mile wildfire crossed a key ridge south of Essex on Thursday, prompting Flathead County authorities to order evacuations and later close an eight-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 2.

Of the more than 200 buildings threatened by the fire, 106 were year-round and vacation residences, including the Izaak Walton Inn.


Associated Press writer Matt Volz contributed from Helena, Montana.

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Video:
PHOTO: Washington state firefighters are holding their own against a giant wildfire despite high winds. (Aug. 28)
Washington state firefighters are holding their own against a giant wildfire despite high winds. (Aug. 28)
Photo Gallery:
PHOTO: An airplane used to fight wildfires flies past the sun, which appears orange due to heavy smoke in the air while battling a blaze that flared up in the late afternoon near Omak, Wash., Thursday, Aug. 27, 2015. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
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