Temperatures soared in Spokane on Wednesday to 98 degrees, the highest recorded temperature this summer, as wildfire smoke settled across the region.
That made air quality unhealthy, according to the Spokane Clean Air Regional Agency.
And conditions are expected to get worse before they get better.
The source of the smoke – the Williams Flats Fire burning on the Colville Indian Reservation – continued to grow Wednesday night, and officials were concerned the trend would persist.
“We’re pretty sure (the Williams Flats Fire is) going to get bigger.” said Marc Hollen, spokesman for Northwest Interagency Incident Management Team 8.
The fire had grown to 21,190 acres and was 25% contained as of 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, but with concerns that it might grow to the east and northeast, fire officials expanded evacuation orders.
As of Wednesday evening, 23 homes were placed in a Level 3 evacuation advisory, meaning residents were advised to leave immediately. These home were located in the area southwest of Wilmont Creek to Whitestone Lookout Road.
The Inchelium Community Center was open overnight as an evacuation shelter.
A Level 2 evacuation advisory was issued Wednesday evening for residents in the Wilmont Creek drainage, meaning they are asked to be prepared to leave at a moment’s notice. There are 11 homes in this area.
In addition, all residents and campers along the shoreline of Lake Roosevelt and the Columbia River from the Falls Creek/Cougar Canyon Road south to Wilmont Creek Road were placed on a Level 1 evacuation advisory, meaning it was time to start preparing in case the area needs to be evacuated. Only one home is in that area.
No structures had burned as of Wednesday night. While two firefighters have been injured battling the blaze, one already returned to the fire line, Hollen said.
Hollen said weather conditions will likely make things worse. A heat advisory that was in place for Spokane on Wednesday will remain on Thursday, with temperatures expected to stay in the upper 90s. Weather near the Williams Flats Fire is expected to shift but stay hot, Hollen said.
“The problem for tomorrow is our weather is changing and the winds are going to be moving around,” Hollen said Wednesday night. “And that can makes things not only hard to deal with but they also change what they do to a fire.”
He said that crews will face “the same kind of problem” on Friday and Saturday.
Thunderstorms are forecast for Thursday and Friday, with south or southwest winds through the day and evening and gusts of approximately 15 mph, said Laurie Nisbet, a National Weather Service meteorologist.
As the storms develop, there may not initially be a lot of rain, but as they progress into late Friday and early Saturday heavy rain is expected with the potential for flash flooding, Nisbet said.
But Hollen said it’s not clear whether the rain that comes will make a difference on the fire.
“This is a pretty big fire and just a little rain somewhere along the way wouldn’t make much of an impact,” he said.
More substantial cooling is expected through the weekend with Sunday’s expected high to reach only 71 degrees, which would be 15 degrees below average, Nisbet said.
Jon Fox, meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Spokane, said that a thick column of smoke forming from the Williams Flats Fire was likely to blow into Spokane Wednesday evening and last for a few days. In that case, air quality is expected to stay in the “unhealthy” category, affecting all groups.
Hollen said a primary objective of crews fighting the Williams Flats Fire is to keep it from jumping Lake Roosevelt, and he said it’s “very definitely a concern” that it could happen.
“All of the agencies involved are watching that,” he said.
As of Wednesday night, it was about 1.5 miles away from the lake’s shore, Hollen said.
Firefighters’ efforts stalled on Tuesday evening because a drone illegally flew into the area, and all aircraft – including nine helicopters – assisting the fire left the area as a precaution until the drone left the area, according to a news release from the incident management team. Some Fire Boss airplanes and large retardant planes were forced to temporarily wait at the airport.
The pilot of the drone had not been found as of Wednesday afternoon, Hollen said, but penalties range upward of $20,000 for violating the temporary 10-mile no-fly zone around the fire.
Through late August, forecasts show below average temperatures and above average precipitation, Nisbet added.
Spokesman-Review reporter Emma Epperly contributed to this story.
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