Thunderstorms dropped heavy rain on two wildfires north of Spokane beginning Saturday afternoon through Sunday morning, slowing the blazes, along with fire personnel, in their tracks.
A crew of 64 firefighters spent the night on the line at the Williams Flats fire on the Colville Reservation after flash flooding made the path back to the command post unsafe to travel.
“The terrain becomes slippery, like slick clay, and they just couldn’t get out,” said Michael Krueger, a spokesman for the fire. “There was a stretch of about a half mile that they couldn’t get out.”
Firefighters hunkered down wherever they could; some were able to sleep in vehicles, Krueger said. On Sunday morning a helicopter flew over the area to tell the crew the safest way to return to the command post. There were no injuries as a result of the storm.
“Lightning doesn’t do as much when it’s sopping wet,” Krueger said.
The area saw about 1.32 inches of rain through Sunday morning, according to National Weather Service data from Seven Bays Marina on the east bank of Lake Roosevelt. Numerous lightning strikes did not cause any new fire starts.
The positive effect of the rain was no overnight growth of the blaze. The latest size estimate provided by crews walking the fire line with GPS devices was 44,600 acres. That’s larger than the previous estimate of 43,000 acres, Krueger said, but only because the methodology — infrared imaging from an aircraft — was different.
The fire was about 40% contained and close to fully lined as of noon Sunday, Krueger said. Firefighters are no longer as concerned about the fire jumping across Lake Roosevelt.
“We’re much calmer than we were before,” Krueger said. “The rain has really helped. The other thing it’s helped is our temperatures are no longer 105. We’re in the 60s now. That’s much easier to work in.”
But crews and vehicles will have to move a little slower due to slick terrain, he said. About 1,200 firefighters remained on the scene Sunday.
Throughout the day, bulldozers planned to dig a line on the north flank of the fire and hand crews worked around the southern edge, which includes slicker, steeper terrain that vehicles can’t navigate.
Crews also were finishing containing structures and homes in the Four Corners area.
Level 3 evacuations remained in effect for areas south of Four Corners and near the shoreline of Lake Roosevelt along Ninemile-Hellgate Road. Wilmont Creek drainage and Goat Ranch/Hellgate areas had a level 1 evacuation order Sunday, and areas south of Wilmont Creek, including the southern part of Ninemile-Frosty Meadows Road and along the Silver Creek Road, were under a level 2 evacuation.
The Kuehne Road area is restricted to residents and landowners only due to heavy fire traffic in the area. The Colville Tribes Emergency Services had traffic control points at the junctions of Silver Creek Road and Ninemile-Hellgate Road, Olds Creek Road and Ninemile-Frosty Meadows Road and Silver Creek Road and Kuehne Road.
There were no plans to drop water or retardant on the fire Sunday, Krueger said. Aircraft had been drawing water from Lake Roosevelt and patrols were in place to keep boaters out of the way.
The North Mill Creek Fire northeast of Colville in the Colville National Forest was estimated at almost 500 acres as of Sunday morning, which was approximately the same total as Saturday.
The fire was 90% lined and 60% contained Sunday morning after rain on Saturday brought down its temperature. The area saw nearly a half inch of rain through Sunday morning, according to NWS data from Colville.
“As temperatures (outside) heat up that may change,” said Anjel Tomayko, a spokeswoman for the fire. “So that’s why we’re taking this opportunity to make sure the fire line is secure.”
Though the rain didn’t cause any mudslides or major hazards, crews have been cautioned to slow down as they move along slick roads at the fire. No crews were on the fire line overnight, and Sunday they planned to complete the containment lines and mop up hot spots along the edge of the fire.
No evacuation orders were in place as of Sunday at 1 p.m., but North Fork Mill Creek Road, Middle Fork Mill Creek Road, Rocky Creek Road and Bestrom Road were closed.
NWS forecast more rain in the region throughout Sunday and overnight with a chance of lightning in the early afternoon, meteorologist Mark Turner said.
The areas of both fires had flood advisories in effect Sunday.
But the weather is expected to be dry and warm Monday, Turner said.
“Sunny, 70s tomorrow,” he said. “It’s going to be nice.”
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