POMEROY, Wash. – Crews strengthened lines around the perimeter of a 49,000-acre wildfire burning in southeastern Washington as fire officials prepared for warmer, drier weather.
The fire, the largest in the lower 48 states, was 55 percent contained Sunday. Crews focused efforts at the fire’s south end, where thicker timber and heavier debris such as logs and fallen branches slowed mop-up.
“We don’t expect any dramatic increase in fire behavior,” said Stan Hinatsu, an information officer at a fire camp 16 miles north of the School fire.
But “a warm and drying trend in the next couple days” could increase the potential for reburn and make it more difficult to extinguish hot spots, he said.
Crews gained ground on the fire Saturday after rain and cooler temperatures, mostly at the north end, helped moderate fire behavior and allowed them to work closer to the fire. They dug 15 miles of fire lines around the southeast portion of the fire near Pataha Creek Drainage and Stentz Spring Recreation Residence.
About 100 residences remain evacuated.
There are about 1,330 firefighters on the fire, burning in steep, rough terrain about 16 miles south of Pomeroy. It started Aug. 5 and burned 109 residences, along with 106 outbuildings. Most of those buildings included a mix of modest summer cabins and full-time residences.
Darcy Brenner, 26, was out of town when the fire started but returned to her home two days later and found nothing left but a cement foundation and twisted metal.
Her father and grandfather built the home around the time Brenner was born, and she had recently been living there year-round.
“It wasn’t just a house, it was a life. It was my life,” Brenner said, recalling how she rode motorcycles around the home and played in nearby trees.
“Pretty devastating,” said Doug Young, 49, as he flipped through photos he’d taken of his 1973 home. All that remained was a brick fireplace and a portion of the chimney.
The fire destroyed the family cabin of Ramona Scoggin-McDowell, 59, of Kennewick, who grew up in Pomeroy. She said her family would visit the cabin on weekends and go deer hunting.
“Part of that history’s gone,” Scoggin-McDowell said. “History’s important in a small community.”
At the Pioneer Eatery, owner April Cikity has been busy feeding the many firefighters who come to her for a hot meal. In the past week she’s stayed open late to serve all the crews.
“We told them we’d feed them all, and would not go home until they’d eaten,” Cikity said.
Crews also made progress on a fire about nine miles west of Davenport, about 150 miles north of the School fire.
The Harker Canyon fire was 70 percent contained at 1,566 acres.
The $2 million it’s cost to fight the fire near Grangeville since last week appears to have paid off, with fire officials saying that fire lines etched into a steep rugged canyon are probably enough to protect 80 homes that had been threatened.
The Blackerby fire, a human-caused blaze, has burned more than 4,000 acres and scorched forest land to within 200 yards of some of the homes.
“The control lines that are protecting the houses on the north side of the fire are now complete,” said Laura Smith, a spokeswoman for the Blackerby fire information center. “The houses are pretty much protected. The control lines are there.”
The 500 firefighters working near this town of 3,200 to control the fire plan to turn their attention from the homes to where the fire jumped the South Fork Clearwater River last week, to protect a plantation of new trees on National Forest land, Smith said.
At least a dozen large blazes are still burning in Idaho, as well as multiple smaller blazes. Idaho currently is the most active of all states for fires. Still, cooler temperatures in the 70s and higher humidity helped firefighters gain ground for a second day on Sunday after what fire officials termed “a long week.”
The Long-Ruggles fire near Craigmont, which like the Blackerby is burning on Idaho Department of Lands-managed territory, held steady at about 4,400 acres and hasn’t advanced further toward six homes used by cowboys to herd cattle from neighboring ranches.
More than 200 personnel were digging fire lines, and nine aircraft including helicopters were dropping water on the blaze.
“Things went well today,” said Tammy Frost, at the Department of Lands’ Craig Mountain Supervisory Area office, where crews are coordinating the attack on Long-Ruggles. Frost estimated the fire, burning in steep terrain, at 15 percent contained.
“The way it’s been going, it could be a lot more in a day or two,” she said.
Idaho County, where Blackerby and Long-Ruggles are burning, was declared a disaster area late Friday by Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, making the county eligible for additional state and federal funding. Also in Idaho County, the West Fork fire was burning along the Salmon River east of Riggins, though it didn’t grow beyond the 400 acres reported Saturday, Smith said.
Elsewhere in the state, a fire ignited Friday evening by a plane crash that killed three members of an Idaho family was still burning Sunday afternoon. About 100 firefighters had been transported to the 17-acre Sheep Peak fire five miles west of Cascade, and they expect to have it contained by Monday evening.
Crews were routed elsewhere Sunday as firefighters continued to take advantage of cool, moist weather at an 11,000-acre wildfire near Alberton and other blazes burning across the state.
Authorities, meanwhile, announced they had found a man whose car broke down the day that fire and a series of others were started along Interstate 90. Officials believe the blazes were sparked by a malfunctioning vehicle or arson.
The man’s name was not released and charges had not been filed, but officials said they were speaking with him and the driver who called in the tip. Forest Service spokeswoman Paula Nelson encouraged others to call (406) 396-4168 with information about that fire or any other blaze.
“Others, possibly commuters, may have seen a malfunctioning vehicle, suspicious activity or one of the fires when they were very small,” she said. “We ask that they call in and help us solve this case.”
The Tarkio and West Mountain fires, now one large fire, remained 50 percent contained but have made no significant runs in days and were largely smoldering Sunday, fire information officer Trish Hogervorst said.
Residents were allowed Saturday to return to 10 homes that had been under an evacuation order since shortly after the fires began Aug. 4. Full containment is expected as early as today.