- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 19, 2015

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) - The intense wildfire season ravaging the West and taxing fire crews and equipment to their limits is the new normal, the chief of the U.S. Forest Service said Wednesday at a fire site in Oregon.

The statement came as Chief Tom Tidwell visited the scene of the major fire 150 miles east of Portland that burned 36 homes last week before 600 firefighters started corralling it.

The succession of intense fire seasons shows the need for thinning forests to make the landscapes less vulnerable to fire, Tidwell said.

Nationwide, 26,000 firefighters were battling blazes, including 8,500 in the Northwest. Talks were under way to bring in fire management personnel from Australia and New Zealand.

“This is kind of the new normal,” Tidwell said. “It seems like almost every year we get to this point and it’s really tight for resources for a few weeks.”

With civilian fire crews maxed out in Oregon fighting 11 major blazes, Gov. Kate Brown is deploying 125 National Guard troops to help.

They were to begin training this week in Salem for assignment to fire lines late next week.

“They’re there to assist in any way and they’ll be fully trained,” said Major Steven Bomar, a spokesman for the Oregon National Guard.

The governor announced her decision while visiting a fire command center in John Day. The blaze in the area was declared the nation’s top priority for resources after destroying three dozen homes and threatening 500 more.

The priority level for the fire was based on the threat to homes and human life, and the closure of U.S. Highway 395, a major artery in the region, said Carol Connolly, a spokeswoman for the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center.

After starting from a lightning strike last week, the fire has burned 75 square miles, mostly in Malheur National Forest, where extensive thinning projects have gone on in recent years to reduce fire danger.

Smoke from the fires made air quality moderate to unhealthy for special groups across most of the state.

Firefighting resources were maxed out for the region, and incident commanders were releasing crews and equipment from lower level fires to pitch in on priority blazes, Connolly said.

With so many fire departments sending engines to protect homes from wildfires, the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department banned beach fires, and campfires and candles in state campgrounds.

The Oregon Department of Forestry banned campfires throughout Tillamook County.

Tidwell and Brown visited the fire command post at Grant County Fairgrounds, where food, clothing and household goods for victims were also being handed out.

Some evacuation warnings were downgraded on the north end of the fire perimeter, where homes burned Friday.

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