YAKIMA – There’s no relief in sight for firefighters battling several large wildfires in Washington, and a lightning storm forecast to sweep through the region today could ignite even more blazes and bring little to no rain.
For weeks, thousands of firefighters have been working to steer the fires away from scattered hillside homes and entire communities. The fires are burning on 143 square miles of parched forest, brush and grass.
Thick smoke has blanketed the immediate area of the fires and beyond, forcing one school district to cancel classes entirely. State health officials sent more than 20,000 respirator masks to the region in anticipation of possible shortages.
The fires in Central Washington were expected to kick up a little bit Friday with high temperatures and unstable conditions, National Weather Service meteorologist Steven Van Horn said. But today’s storm could bring lightning to Western Washington and up and down the Cascade Range, with the hardest-hit area likely to be the central region, he said.
The storm is likely to bring very little precipitation, he said. Significant rainfall or snow is not expected anytime soon.
So far, firefighters have largely been able to protect homes. Residents of 161 homes north of Ellensburg, about 100 miles southeast of Seattle, have been urged to leave because of fires.
Several fires there have already burned together to create one blaze covering nearly 47 square miles, and the fire was threatening to merge with another large blaze southwest of Wenatchee. U.S. Highway 97 was closed over Blewett Pass as firefighters worked to burn dry fuel and take down dead trees.
Some forestland in the fire’s path hasn’t burned in decades, and trees have been killed or removed of their foliage by outbreaks of mountain pine beetle and Western spruce budworm, fire spokeswoman Connie Mehmel said.
“We’re not trying to get them to burn together, but it just isn’t realistic” to stop them, she said. “In some ways, we can more easily manage these fires if they burn together with just one perimeter.”
Smoke is pouring across Eastern Washington. State officials have warned of hazardous air quality in Ellensburg and Wenatchee from the thick smoke.
Several high schools postponed or relocated outdoor sporting events. Central Washington University moved today’s football game against Azusa Pacific from Ellensburg to the Seattle suburb of Bothell.
In Yakima, organizers canceled the annual Sunfair Parade to open the Central Washington State Fair due to the poor air quality.