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Wildfires Spread Through Western US - 2001-08-17

More than 21,000 firefighters are battling a series of wildfires spread throughout several Western U.S. states. The worst blazes Thursday were in the states of Washington and Oregon. Firefighters are hoping for rain.

The National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho has placed the Western United States at Level 5 alert status. That is the highest such status and allows fire managers to bring in crews from across the nation and ask the military for help if necessary.

In Oregon, 11 large fires were burning Thursday on 109,000 hectares. The governor has declared a state of conflagration, which means any agency helping fight the fire will be reimbursed by the state.

Don Smurthwaite of the National Interagency Fire Center says firefighters will not get any cooperation from the weather anytime soon. "We are expecting higher winds and a chance of dry thunderstorms," he said. "Those are two things that firefighters do not need right now."

Dry thunderstorms mean lightning strikes which can ignite additional fires, but no rain to help prevent them from spreading. Fire crews throughout the West are using helicopters and airplanes to drop millions of liters of water on the flames. Don Sohler is with the Oregon Department of Forestry. "The other day they transported - just one helicopter - put 150 loads of water on the fire in one day," he said.

Other fires in the West include one on an Indian reservation in northern Washington, where at least six homes have been destroyed so far.

Flames are also threatening the historic mining town of Midas, Nevada. It has only 30 permanent residents and one major street. Crews have used bulldozers to plow away dry brush and create a barrier against the advancing fire. Water trucks are standing by to douse any sparks that skip across the barrier.

In California, highway 80 was reopened Thursday between San Francisco and the vacation town of Lake Tahoe. A section of the road had been closed because of fires burning in the Tahoe National Forest.

Wildfires were also burning Thursday in the states of Arizona, Idaho, Oklahoma, Montana, Texas and Wyoming.