Firestorm in Central Washington almost contained!
The Northwest is the current epicenter for much of the nation’s summer firefighting efforts. Northwest fire officials were tracking more than 17 large fires in Oregon and Washington as of last Saturday.Wildfires have torched close to 950,000 acres in Washington and Oregon. Fourteen large fires are burning in Oregon, where more than 555,000 acres are ablaze. Washington has seven large fires with acreage involved approaching 400,000 as of this writing. More than 6,100 firefighters and support personnel have deployed in Oregon, with more on the way. In Washington, as of Sunday, that number was 2,800. Red FlagWhile temperatures moderated some in northeast Washington, a Red Flag warning was issued late last week for fire-ravaged Central Washington and the Columbia Basin. The National Weather Service forecast breezy winds and low humidity on Friday through the Cascade Gaps and Columbia Basin. A Red Flag warning means that critical fire weather conditions are either currently occurring or will shortly. A combination of strong winds and low relative humidity, combined with warm temperatures, has contributed to extreme fire danger—particularly in the hard-hit Methow Valley and the Okanogan region of Pateros and Brewster.The region was expected to get some rain Tuesday and Wednesday. Dry, breezy conditions could follow on Thursday, according to forecasts. Whether that welcome precipitation comes with thunderstorms and the attendant lightning wasn’t certain at press time.“The fuels are very dry,” said Robin DeMario, a spokeswoman for the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center. “If there is an ignition source, there is a high potential for a new fire to grow rapidly.”It’s late July. That scenario doesn’t look to change any time soon.A large, wind-whipped conflagration in rural, north-central Washington destroyed more than 100 homes, forced evacuation of Pateros and cut power to most of the scenic Methow Valley last Thursday.For many residents of the Methow Valley, last week’s firestorm was a living hell. No containment A spokesman for the Carlton Complex Fire, Jacob McCann, said late last week that the fire “ran quite a bit” on Thursday and officials were also able to get a better determination of its size. That estimate grew rapidly as the fire raged out of control. The devastating wildfires displaced hundreds of people and had burned about 150 homes By Sunday. The Carlton conflagration was running through rugged terrain near the communities of Carlton and Twisp. By Sunday, the fire had torched almost 300,000 acres, or about 470 square miles.The Carlton Complex forced the evacuation of the small town (650 residents) of Pateros. More than 30 homes were reportedly destroyed in Pateros and another 40 in the nearby community of Alta Lake. Many homes around the nine-hole Alta Lakes Golf Course were razed by the fast-moving, wind-whipped fire. That count of homes lost is expected to climb.Over the highwayAt one point, the fast-moving inferno jumped Highway 97 between Brewster and Pateros and was burning along the Columbia River. Portions of several highways in the area were closed.The Okanogan County Sheriff’s Department said that at least 300 residents of the Chiliwist Valley, about 15 miles north of Pateros, evacuated their homes on Thursday night as the fire raged unabated.Residents told harrowing stories of fire racing through neighborhoods and razing everything in its path. At a community meeting with emergency and fire officials on Sunday night at Brewster High School, nerves became frazzled and tempers flared when several residents shouted that fire crews hadn’t done enough to protect their homes. Others said authorities hadn’t notified them to evacuate and they had barely made it out before the fire hit.Officials expressed regret and sympathy for those in attendance who had lost their homes. Fire bosses and other officials blamed communication issues on the lack of resources. Two major power lines, one feeding Pateros and one serving Twisp, burned, resulting in a widespread power outage in the county. Most of the Methow Valley from Carlton to Mazama was without power after utility poles burned. The area is still mostly without power.Last Thursday, fire from the Carlton Complex spread in every direction, fueled by winds that gusted up to 30 miles per hour. Fire bosses said the fire was spotting up to a half-mile away. Nathan Rabe, incident commander of the Type 2 team in charge of the fire suppression effort, said safety was the highest priority. “I was here at Libby South and Thirtymile,” he told a few hundred people who came for a fire information meeting last Thursday, referring to the devastating 2001 fire that killed four firefighters north of Winthrop.“I have 18, 19 and 20-year-olds here,” Rabe told his audience. “Their parents have entrusted me with their kids.”Highest priorityA Type 1 NIMO Team, a national group referred to “as the experts of the experts” and with the clout and horsepower to move in additional resources, moved in late last week. About 100 miles to the south, fire managers said crews were getting a better handle on the Chiwaukum Creek fire that chased nearly 900 people from their homes near the Bavarian theme town of Leavenworth. As of Friday morning, that fire was officially still uncontained, fire bosses said, adding that crews had managed to box the massive blaze in west of Highway 2. Later in the weekend, there was talk of partial containment. The fire had covered more than 10 square miles by Friday and hot, dry conditions continued to hamper the fire-fighting effort. Like Northeast Washington, temperatures in Central Washington reached the triple digits for much of last week before a slight cooling trend hit last weekend.Mills CanyonA fire near the town of Entiat Mills Canyon) had burned 35 square miles of grass, brush and timber as of last Thursday, according to fire officials. Until the Leavenworth and Okanogan County fires ignited mid-week last week, that wide-reaching blaze had been the nation’s largest and the top priority. A lightning strike back on July 14 caused a wildfire to burn at least 2,000 acres about 15 miles northwest of Soap Lake in Grant County. The fire had been 100 percent contained by Thursday.Locally, crews were mopping up a 1,000-acre fire near Lake Spokane. A 17-acre fire last week in Spokane County was also quickly extinguished.The Department of Natural Resources in Colville has committed resources to the fire complexes in Central Washington.According to Forrest Ownbey of the Northeast District of DNR, “everything we had had to deal with so far we have been able to catch…fuels are very dry out there.”Ownbey said two engines from Colville were dispatched to the Mill Creek Canyon fire near Entiat. There are also local firefighters on the fire lines near Leavenworth. The hot, dry conditions don’t bode well for the rest of the summer—and the typically active fire months of August and September.According to officials with the National Interagency Coordination Center (Boise, Idaho), many of the large fires and fire complexes burning in the Northwest are already displaying “extreme fire behavior,” with groups of trees torching in bunches, fire extending into the crowns of trees and spot fires igniting well ahead of the fires’ advancing fronts.Oregon on fireAbove average potential for wildfires, driven by drought conditions, will extend through September for most of Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada and Idaho, according to the coordination center.In Oregon, two different lightning-caused fires grew very quickly in hot, dry conditions in tinder-dry Central Oregon.Authorities said the Bridge 99 Fire in the Cascade Range 20 miles north of the tourist town of Sisters, tripled in size and threatened rural homes along the fabled Metolius River. An evacuation order urged residents to leave their homes immediately. In the Ochoco Mountains east of Prineville, the Bailey Butte Fire grew after getting into heavy timber in a wilderness area.In southern Oregon, a Klamath County fire turned out to be more destructive than initially believed. After the fire burned in the rural Moccasin Hill subdivision near Sprague River earlier last week, officials reported six homes had been destroyed. But a tour of the burn area ratcheted that number up to 17 residences and 16 outbuildings destroyed. National GuardWorsening wildfire activity prompted the governor’s offices in both Washington and Oregon to declare a state of emergency, a move that enabled state officials to call up the National Guard. In Washington, that declaration covers 20 Eastern Washington counties. The DNR said late last weekend that firefighters from New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming are heading to Washington to help battle the fires.Two military tankers from Wyoming are also being activated to help fight wildfires in the Northwest.The Central Washington fires continued to pump smoke into much of Eastern Washington late last week. Saturday was a particularly smoke-filled day in the Colville valley. An air quality alert was issued late last week by the Department of Ecology in Spokane for much of the region, including Central Washington and the Tri-Counties. In the Colville valley late last week, visibility from the Central Washington fires had been seriously impacted, along with the air quality. A fast-moving wildfire burning through rangeland southwest of Cheney called the Watermelon Hill Fire near Fishtrap Lake in Lincoln County, had burned about 13,000 acres by late Sunday.