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Fire crews in Washington state, still grieving Wednesday’s loss of four firefighters in a “hellstorm” of flame outside Twisp, Wash., are combating one of the driest and most explosive wildfire seasons on record. At least 10 fires were burning in north-central Washington’s Okanogan County alone, where entire towns have emptied as their inhabitants headed for safety.

A wildfire consumes a tree in a burning forest near Omak, Wash., on Aug. 20, 2015. (Bettina Hansen/Associated Press)

Western Canada has also battled wildfires exacerbated by the El Nino weather system this summer, and they’re not entirely out of the woods yet. A stronger El Nino could extend Saskatchewan’s fire season until October, a provincial fire official said Thursday, as many weather models predict more hot, dry weather in the West in the coming months.

(From the archives: How wildfires and drought hurt the Prairie economy)


Scott Wasylenchuk, manager of Saskatchewan’s provincial forest fire centre, says crews and equipment will be kept running longer if necessary, CJME reported.

Accuweather is forecasting an abnormally high number of days over 30 C into early October. Wasylenchuk says if that happens, it will lengthen the time the forest will be dry. But he also says there have been fires burning into late summer. “What tends to save us [in fall] is that humidities are a bit higher. The days are shorter. We have lots of dew in the morning so the fire intensities aren’t as great.”

The bill is still coming in on the cost of this year’s fire season in Saskatchewan. At the end of July the province said it had spent more than $100-million fighting fires in the north. At the peak of the crisis more than 13,000 people were evacuated from 50 northern communities. More than 100 structures, mostly cabins, were destroyed.

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(Watch: Understanding El Nino and what it means for the weather)


Like thousands of other college students in the West, Tom Zbyszewski relished summers in the fire camps – outdoor work that paid, that was important, that gave him – a physics major with an acting bent – a little swagger when he returned to school in the fall. His parents, who had fought wildfires themselves, weren’t even nervous about it. One more week, and Zbyszewski, 20, would have been back at Whitman College, telling stories.

Instead, what authorities described as a “hellstorm” of flame driven by shifting winds overtook his crew Wednesday after they crashed in a vehicle while fighting a wildfire outside Twisp, in north-central Washington. Zbyszewski was killed, along with two others, identified by the U.S. Forest Service as Andrew Zajac, 26, and Richard Wheeler, 31. All three were from specialized crews that go into dangerous areas as fast as they can to examine a scene and report back to commanders on what needs to be done, said Bill Queen, a firefighting spokesman. Four others were injured, one critically.

“It’s what everybody does up here. It’s part of the culture,” Zbyszewski’s sobbing father, Richard, told Associated Press in a telephone interview Thursday night. “I fought fires for years and years and years – I never even got burned. I wish it was me. I’m an old man.”


Nearly 29,000 firefighters – 3,000 of them in Washington – are battling some 100 large blazes across the drought- and heat-stricken western United States, including Idaho, Oregon, Montana and California. Wednesday’s deaths brought to 13 the number of firefighters killed across the western United States this year.

Jessica Gardetto of the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, said 13 so far is a relatively high number. There were 10 fatalities last year and 15 in 2012. But there were 34 in 2013, including 19 members of an elite firefighting crew killed by an out-of-control wildfire near the small town of Yarnell, Arizona.