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Firefighter killed in Oregon is identified as crews battle blazes

By Teresa Carson

PORTLAND, Ore. - (Reuters) - A firefighter killed while battling a central Oregon wildfire has been identified as John Hammack of Madras, Oregon, officials said on Friday, as crews aided briefly by cooler, wetter weather grappled with blazes that have blackened more than 200 square miles (520 square km) of the Pacific Northwest.

Hammack died and another firefighter was injured when the top of a tree they were removing from the fire area outside the town of Sisters on Thursday broke off and crashed down on Hammack, who was 58, the Deschutes County Sheriff's Office said in a statement.

Other officials said Hammack was 60.

The surviving firefighter, Norman Crawford, was treated at a hospital for shoulder injuries and has been released, according to local reports. Both men, contract tree fellers, were part of a firefighting team.

"This is a tough loss for Oregon," said Governor John Kitzhaber, who is set to visit a fire area in the southern part of the West Coast state on Saturday.

The current fire season has been particularly deadly in the U.S. West. Nineteen Arizona firefighters died in June after they became trapped by a wind-whipped inferno, and two people perished after being caught in a blaze in Colorado.

Thousands of firefighters fought to snuff out or at least contain blazes that had burned more than 40,000 acres of timber and range land across Oregon on Friday, 5,000 acres more than on Thursday, said Carol Connolly, a spokeswoman for the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center.

Nighttime and early morning lightning strikes sparked dozens of new fires, Connelly said, adding that emergency crews were helped by cooler temperatures and higher humidity, a streak likely to end next week with hotter weather and possibly more lightning-bearing storms.

In neighboring Washington state, more than 2,100 firefighters were making steady progress against a pair of blazes that have scorched more than 107,000 acres east of the Cascade Range.

About 45 structures remained at high risk from the so-called Colockum Tarps fire burning south of Wenatchee, said Mary Ellen Fitzgerald, a U.S. Forest Service official and a spokeswoman for firefighting efforts.

That fire, which has burned more than 80,000 acres in less than a week, has claimed three houses and five other buildings, including three outhouses. It was 30 percent contained as of Friday morning as firefighters were aided by light rain and fortuitous winds pushing smoke away from the containment line, Fitzgerald said.

Farther south, the so-called Mile Marker 28 fire, which has blackened 27,000 acres close to the Oregon border, is 75 percent contained, with residents of 69 homes forced to flee allowed to return as of Wednesday.

(Additional reporting by Jonathan Kaminsky in Olympia, Washington; Writing by Jane Sutton and Eric M. Johnson; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Steve Orlosky)

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