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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Fire growth slows, smoke heads west

Overnight shift in wind direction pushes smoke to west, south of Spokane area

Homeowner Brad Craig, right, thanks departing firefighters for saving his home from an advancing wildfire Saturday morning in Okanogan, Wash. (Associated Press)
Homeowner Brad Craig, right, thanks departing firefighters for saving his home from an advancing wildfire Saturday morning in Okanogan, Wash. (Associated Press)
By Nina Culver and Jonathan Brunt The Spokesman-Review

After a week of deadly fires forcing evacuations of whole towns and pushing fire officials to scramble for more help, Saturday was calm.

Or as calm as it could be with more than 600 square miles of the state scorched or on fire.

“It was pretty quiet today,” said Rick Isaacson, a spokesman for crews battling the more than 1,100 square miles burned in the Okanogan Complex.

Near Nespelem, in eastern Okanogan County, growth of the nearly 200 square-mile North Star fire was “very, very slow,” said Cliff Russell, a fire information officer.

To the east, in Ferry County, there was a similar assessment of the Kettle Complex, a series of four fires totaling more than 85 square miles: “It was a much better day than yesterday,” said Alan Hoffmeister, spokesman for the fire crews.

In Spokane, the unhealthy, smoky brown skies of Friday turned blue Saturday as winds pushed the smoke west, to Central Washington, as well as areas where the smoke originated.

While air quality in Spokane was rated “good” or “moderate” for most of the day, cities where it was considered “unhealthy” or “very unhealthy” included Yakima, Ellensburg, Twisp, Winthrop, Pullman, Clarkston – even as far west as Marysville, according to the state Department of Ecology.

In Tonasket in Okanogan County, Mayor Patrick Plumb said the town was much calmer Saturday than two days earlier, when the entire town was ordered to evacuate.

“There are fires that are going on around us,” he said. “We are not in direct danger at this time.”

The Tunk Block fire is closest to town, but calmer winds Saturday meant firefighters could do back burns and make other efforts to stop its spread.

“It’s creeping down hills, but not progressing quickly,” he said.

While the town itself is untouched, Plum said he knows neighbors outside of town have been hard hit.

“Some have lost homes, I know,” he said. “Our hearts are with them.”

Before Thursday the town of 1,100 people had never been evacuated. There’s a large population of elderly and disabled residents, including a hospital and nursing home in the center of town. Many of those residents don’t own cars.

The town had made some preparations, including notifying residents that the town’s fire siren would sound for two minutes to signal an evacuation. Plumb already had met with the hospital and determined that staff and patients would shelter in place. The older section of the hospital was designed to be a nuclear fallout shelter.

“There is no place else to go,” he said.

Residents also were confused about whether they should be heading to Omak or Oroville when they left.

“It was pretty hectic,” Plumb said. “My emotions were running pretty high.”

The town’s evacuation notice has been downgraded to Level 2, a request to be prepared to leave quickly.

As with the other fires burning in Washington, there was progress made Saturday on the Carpenter Road fire burning in southwestern Stevens County partly on the Spokane Indian Reservation. The fire is estimated at more than 50 square miles. Cool temperatures and low winds helped firefighters, allowing bulldozers to build fire lines and airplanes to drop water and fire retardant. Some back burns were done on the west end, which is in good shape, said local volunteer Tom Cools.

“The fire is still hot on many of the edges,” he said. “It has moved, but slowly. It came down and crept across Sand Creek Road on the reservation.”

Meanwhile, a second of the four firefighters injured in a wildfire near Twisp on Wednesday has been transferred to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, the Northwest’s major burn center. The firefighter was transferred Friday night and is listed in satisfactory condition, Harborview spokeswoman Susan Gregg said Saturday.

Gregg did not release the firefighter’s identity or the extent of his injuries, but she said he was a 47-year-old man from the Okanogan area.

“His thoughts are with the other injured firefighters and those who died,” Gregg said.

Three firefighters were killed and four injured when flames overtook them Wednesday while they were battling the Okanogan Complex. Another firefighter remains in critical condition at Harborview with burns over 60 percent of his body.

The break in intensity on Saturday could end today with increasing temperatures. The National Weather Service issued a red flag warning for north central Washington starting at noon.

Smoke was expected to increase in the area overnight. In the afternoon, much depends on how active the fires are.

Jeff Cote, a National Weather Service meteorologist, said the wind direction likely could keep much of the smoke out of Spokane. But he added that it is difficult to predict.

“Smoke forecasting is not really modeled very well,” he said.

The Spokane Regional Clean Air Agency’s website crashed early Saturday because of high traffic, said agency spokeswoman Lisa Woodard. It was back up late in the morning after it was moved to a new server.

She said officials will analyze data on Monday to better understand Friday’s unprecedented readings. At 8:20 p.m., the agency’s Spokane Valley monitor recorded particulate matter in the “hazardous” range, a rating air quality officials said they had never seen.

With so much smoke from regional fires, Woodard said people with health concerns should continue to keep an eye on air quality before spending much time outside.

“We’re still advising people to be cautious,” she said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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