Three wildfires have burned about 100,000 acres west of Spokane, keeping hundreds of firefighters busy trying to corral the blaze and protect homes and other buildings.
Smoke-filled skies prompted health concerns as air quality worsened.
At Grand Coulee, about 80 miles west of Spokane, two fires make up the Barker Canyon fire complex, burning more than 78,000 acres of land. With about 20 percent containment as of Tuesday night, Highway 174 was closed from Highway 17 to the Ground Coulee Dam. Everyone in between has been warned that evacuations are possible.
Karen Ripley, spokeswoman for the Interagency Incident Management Team, said people were forced to flee their homes Monday but were able to return Tuesday.
Southeast of those fires, about 40 miles southwest of Spokane, the Apache Pass fire was burning 20,000 acres of land south of Wilbur and Creston.
Washington State Patrol officer Jeff Sevigney said a dozen people were given evacuation notices for the fire, and some structures – none of which was a primary residence – have been damaged. Containment was listed at 30 percent Tuesday night.
Lightning ignited the fires over the weekend. Strong winds overnight Monday – with gusts up to 40 mph – pushed the fires through the dry countryside.
“We’re fortunate today the winds have died down from yesterday,” Sevigney said Tuesday.
One problem, he said, was the state’s resources being pulled in so many directions, as five major fires burned throughout the state into Tuesday.
“We’re slowly getting some more resources, but there’s so much activity going on in the state firewise,” he said.
Aircraft flew over the fires to dump water.
The Red Cross worked at a shelter set up at a senior center in Grand Coulee.
Ripley said she did not have an estimate of how many people are under the evacuation warning, but said residences are generally sparse in the area.
At the Coulee Medical Center near the closed highway, spokesman Steve Becker said the hospital received an evacuation notice Monday night that was downgraded Tuesday, so no patients were evacuated.
Becker said the hospital would remain open and in touch with law enforcement to make sure patients stay safe.
While everything is normal inside the hospital, he said, outside is a different story.
“It has the feel of a military movement with all the big heavy trucks rumbling around this medical center,” Becker said, adding that thick, black smoke can be seen from the center.
That smoke has also found its way to Spokane.
A smoky haze settled over the city Monday, although conditions improved through Tuesday afternoon.
On Tuesday morning the Spokane Regional Clean Air Agency reported the city’s air-quality ranking was 124 on a scale of zero to 500, with 200 and over indicating an unhealthy state. The ranking never reached above 100 last year, according to data from the agency’s website.
By late afternoon, that number was down to 32, taking the overall rating from “unhealthy to sensitive groups” to “good.”
Lisa Woodard, spokeswoman for the agency, said poor air quality can pose greater health risks for people with heart or lung diseases – such as congestive heart failure, angina, emphysema or asthma – as well as children and older adults.
The biggest tip for those affected is to avoid prolonged or heavy exertion, she said.
“Living in an area where we live, we are prone to these kinds of events – dust storms, wildfire smoke,” Woodard said. “It’s our message to those who suffer from heart and respiratory illnesses that they have a plan in place before the season with their physicians so that they can take precautions.”