Smoke from distant wildfires already filled the skies of the Inland Northwest when menacing thunderstorms rolled into the region Tuesday afternoon.
Fire crews worried about lightning and high winds wondered when and where the next blaze might strike.
“It’s tough to guess whether we’re actually going to get hit with anything,” said Battalion Chief Gary Hartford of Fire District 3 near Cheney.
Scattered lightning strikes, but no major fires, were reported late Tuesday. The National Weather Service expected heavy rain to continue overnight.
Forests and wild lands of Eastern Washington and North Idaho, however, are crackling dry.
With conditions so precarious, Hartford was monitoring the weather and emergency calls all day long.
In Riverside State Park, the site of a devastating wildfire in 1994, officers were on added alert Tuesday.
An unidentified arsonist has been cruising Aubrey L. White Parkway trying to start fires in the tinder-dry grasses along the road, rangers said.
In the past two weeks, crews extinguished two spot fires. They later found small devices that could have started two additional fires.
Officials said the incendiary devices, which stopped burning before they could trigger a fire, apparently had been thrown out of a car window by the arsonist.
On Tuesday night, authorities said winds whipped a small fire into a dangerous blaze that briefly threatened homes in Post Falls on the north side of Interstate 90.
Across the West, 39 major wildfires were raging Tuesday. Together, they had consumed some 320,000 acres, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, which is coordinating firefighting efforts.
Several blazes burned in northeast Oregon, and central and southern Idaho.
They were being blamed for the bluish haze that descended over the area, providing spectacular sunsets but lousy air quality.
Ron Edgar of the Spokane County Air Pollution Control Authority said pollution filters are detecting significant amounts of smoke in the air. Evidence of smoke started several days ago and increased Tuesday, he said.
Because there was little noticeable odor from the smoke until Tuesday afternoon, Edgar said he suspects the haze came from the wildfires to the south and wind-driven dust.
Air monitors in Spokane still registered in the “moderate” category late Tuesday, but Edgar said air quality was deteriorating rapidly.
“We are warning people about the smoke in the air from the wildfires,” he said.
Local grass growers were not burning fields Tuesday, he said, but some of the haze could have been caused by agricultural activity elsewhere in the region.
Weather forecasters, meanwhile, were tracking a large band of thunderstorms that moved north from southern Idaho at midday.
Storm clouds as high as 38,000 feet were reported in portions of Shoshone County in North Idaho, but the sheriff’s office said they had not received any fire reports in the early stages of the storm.
“When you get lightning and gusty winds, it’s a double dose,” said Ron Miller, Weather Service forecaster in Spokane.
Forecasts called for those storms to drift eastward into Montana this morning, giving way to milder weather in Spokane and Coeur d’Alene.
Looking ahead, temperatures are expected to reach the low- to mid-80s Thursday and Friday before dropping about 10 degrees over the Labor Day weekend.
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