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Smoke from wildfires posing health threat

Fri., Sept. 21, 2012

Smoke from wildfires in the region cast a blanket of haze over Spokane on Thursday, a condition expected to continue for days. (Colin Mulvany)
Smoke from wildfires in the region cast a blanket of haze over Spokane on Thursday, a condition expected to continue for days. (Colin Mulvany)

Spokane regional air agency issues Stage 1 notice

Wildfires burning about 150 miles west of Spokane continue to pollute the city with smoke.

Conditions are not expected to improve significantly in the next couple of days, according to the Spokane Regional Clean Air Agency.

The agency issued a Stage 1 Impaired Air Quality notice Thursday, which bans all use of fireplaces and non-EPA-certified wood-burning stoves in addition to the governor’s ban on outdoor fires.

“People with heart or lung disease, older adults, and children should reduce prolonged or heavy exertion,” an agency news release said.

The Table Mountain Complex of wildfires in Central Washington’s Chelan and Kittitas counties has tripled in size to more than 47 square miles, fire spokeswoman Jan Ulrich said.

A combination of factors – including warm temperatures, winds, very low humidity and low moisture in the vegetation – caused the complex to grow and merge into one large fire on Wednesday, Ulrich said.

“It was very active fire behavior yesterday, and we are expecting the same today,” Ulrich said Thursday.

The Table Mountain blaze is being fought by 655 firefighters and is 4 percent contained. It has not burned any homes, but Kittitas County Sheriff Gene Dana said Thursday that 161 homes north of Ellensburg and in the Liberty area are under a Level 3 evacuation, meaning residents are urged to leave.

The Table Mountain Complex is one of several wildfires burning on the eastern slopes of the Cascade Range. The largest, the Wenatchee River Complex, has grown to about 61 square miles. It is 22 percent contained and is being fought by nearly 2,000 firefighters.

The Table Mountain and Wenatchee River complexes are moving closer together, fire officials have said.

Thousands of firefighters are battling dozens of wildfires that were sparked by lightning earlier this month on the east slopes of the Cascades. Many of the blazes are small and in remote areas, but together the fires have covered more than 108 square miles.

Hundreds of people have been evacuated from their homes in the paths of the fires.

Jason Kirchner, spokesman for the Idaho Panhandle National Forests, said the region is extra prone to fires because of dryness.

“We were sitting pretty good a couple of weeks ago, but there’s been marked increase in field dryness,” he said. “Monitoring stations in the North Fork Coeur d’Alene, near St. Maries and in the Selkirks are registering in the top 3 percent of dryness ever recorded.”

The poor air quality has also altered scheduled, controlled burns in the area.

“At least the smoke is a good reminder that there are fires all around us,” Kirchner said. “We haven’t had any significant fires, but we’re not out of the woods yet.”

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