Soldiers ready to join fight this weekend against wildfires in Washington

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TACOMA — Army 2nd Lt. Caroline West felt all the anxieties of going to battle, but she and about 200 other soldiers are set to be deployed this weekend to wage a different kind of deadly fight — that of fighting Washington state’s wildfires.

The fires have been so severe that President Barack Obama on Friday approved an emergency declaration granting additional resources to fight dozens of fires across the state, where three firefighters were killed this week in one blaze.

Those deaths sobered the young officer to the fight ahead of her, when she will be a platoon leader in eastern Washington helping firefighters.

“It was really humbling and brings home how serious the situation is that we are going into, the need for safety,” said West, 23, who’s been on active duty for one year.

“I am definitely feeling the nerves, nervousness and excited. Just thinking we can make a direct impact on helping a community during a wildfire is something to be excited about,” West said. “But I do have to say that we feel we are really well-prepared.”

As tough as any battle

The preparation reminded her of the rigors of battlefield training.

“The firefighters are digging trenches, putting out fires. The sheer amount of physical labor is pretty intense. The hours that they work and physical stress can be compared to our (soldiers) being out in the field,” West told CNN.

Each soldier is equipped with standard firefighter bags, fire retardant clothing, a fire shelter tent and plenty of water.

About 200 active-duty military personnel will help fight the wildfires in seven Western states, the first time since 2006 that soldiers from Joint Base Lewis-McChord have been deployed for such duty.

Fires getting bigger

This summer’s wildfire season is now exceptional for its high number of big fires, though the total number of blazes nationwide is typical, said Ken Frederick, a spokesman with the National Interagency Fire Center.

In all, 259 wildfires are burning in 17 states, mostly in the West and Southwest, Frederick said. That figure falls within the 100 to 300 range typical for this point in the Western wildfire season.

Of that total, 66 are large fires, defined as one with at least 100 acres of timber or at least 300 acres of grass or brush, Frederick said.

“That’s a lot, much more than usual,” Frederick said of the large fires. “Typically in mid-August, you would have 30 to 40 large fires on our situation report, so 66 is significant.”

Many of those Western states are experiencing drought, especially California, which is facing a historic four-year drought. Drought conditions assist the spread of wildfire.

The 17 states with wildfires are Alaska, Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Texas, Wyoming, Colorado, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, North Carolina and South Carolina.

‘Unprecedented cataclysm’

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee painted a dire picture as dozens of fires roared throughout the state.

“I want to say this is an unprecedented cataclysm in our state,” Inslee said Thursday. “There are 390,000 acres burning. Last year was bad with 250,000 acres.”

More than 3,000 fire personnel and 26 planes and other aerial equipment battled the wildfires Thursday, he said.

“In days to come, we know things will be hard, and we thank everyone who are doing everything they can to make sure the Evergreen State doesn’t become an ever fire state,” the governor said at a news conference.

In the latest round of evacuations, residents of the Okanogan County community of Malott were ordered Friday morning to leave the area immediately because of an advancing fire, authorities said.

Washington declared a disaster on a state level in June in anticipation of a harsh wildfire season stoked by drought, and it mobilized more than 300 National Guard personnel to assist firefighters.