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By Air And Ground, Tour Of Washington Wildfires Reveals Destruction, Unpredictability

The battle continues to contain dozens of large wildfires burning across the Northwest. Firefighters are hoping for a break in the weather this weekend -- and perhaps even some rain.

Thursday, Washington Governor Jay Inslee got a first-hand look -- from the ground and the air -- at some of the damage and the ongoing fight in Washington.

From aboard a National Guard Black Hawk helicopter, the damage around the central Washington town of Chelan is stark. Steep hillsides charred, in some places both sides of the road blackened.

And then there’s the burned out shell of the sprawling Chelan Fruit Cooperative plant. The fires burning in north central Washington have taken out businesses and homes, burned some 1,200 square miles and killed three firefighters.

‘A clear and present danger to our state’

It’s very smoky at the Chelan airport. You can smell it. You can see it. Visibility is about a mile and the sun is shrouded by the smoke.”

“I think unless people have flown through the smoke as I have and talked to these firefighters, it is difficult to comprehend a central fact of these fires which is nature bats last,” Governor Jay Inslee said.

Inslee called the fire situation “unprecedented” and a “new normal.” He used a visit to the fire lines to reiterate his call for a program to reduce carbon emissions.

“We are set up for these explosive fires and there’s no power on earth that will totally constrain them,” he said. “That’s why, frankly, I believe we have to attack these at the source which is carbon pollution which right now is a clear and present danger to our state.”

Moving from hot spot to hot spot

A few miles up Lake Chelan, fire is still the clear and present danger. This is where the First Creek fire is burning along the south shore of the lake.

Fire crews have staged and are working an active hot spot. There are a couple of homes and a business nearby and there are flames on a steep, rocky hillside. The crews have dug a line, trying to basically meet the fire and stop it in its tracks.

And then they say they’re going to have to move on to the next hot spot.

“Next we will take this whole roadshow and we will move up to the next area of concern as it’s moving down the hill and we’ll do the same thing: putting in hose lines, putting in dozer lines,” said Kurt Stich. He’s a fire boss from Cowlitz County overseeing a team of freshly minted National Guard firefighters.

One of them is William Tieu, whose civilian job is on the Boeing 737 assembly line. He said fighting fires are “definitely a lot different” than building airplane.

“At Boeing I’m just putting in bolts, screwing down, torqueing,” Tieu said. “Here I’m digging out fires and stuff.”

‘That’s why we’re here’

Flames can be seen up on the hillside. The owner of this property is 80-year-old Phil Kneisley. He and his sons have their homes here along with a mill operation. Kneisley said the other night he watched the fire come down the hillside to within feet of his backdoor.

Fortunately, firefighters were already there and had dug a line.

“And they were just standing around laughing and joking waiting for it,” Kneisley said. “They’re cool.”

They protected his house and now Kneisley can afford to make a joke too.

“I’m supposed to be retired and I’m supposed to be in Mexico right now,” he said. “So I screwed up big time this year.”

The governor is also here -- to thank the National Guard members.

As he was preparing to leave with his wife Trudi, the flames on the hillside caught his eye.

“Trudi, look at this blow up right here,” he said. “Just all of a sudden.”

The flames were leaping up. As the governor left, a fire boss from California told him “that’s why we’re here” and started heading toward the flare up.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."