A day after it made Spokane’s air quality the worst in the country, Grant County’s 243 Command Fire saw some overnight growth into Wednesday spurred by strong westerly winds.
The roughly 15,000-acre blaze – dubbed Washington’s first major wildfire of 2019 by the Department of Natural Resources – began late Monday night near Wanapum Dam in dry grass and sage on the east side of the Columbia River. By early Tuesday morning, the fire had ballooned to 3,000 acres, moving east and south, driven by strong winds as it grew another 2,000 acres by late afternoon.
Firefighters worried Tuesday night that winds reaching up to 20 mph would cause further unimpeded spread toward buildings. That didn’t happen – the fire instead pushed south, away from homes.
“We really built some momentum last night,” said Denise McInturff, the fire’s public information officer. “Even though the wind started to pick up, they managed that.”
Estimates Wednesday put the wildfire at just more than 18,770 acres in size. Containment was listed at about 25%. It’s expected to grow to about 20,000 acres, though GPS mapping has not been completed.
McInturff said about 380 personnel from local, state and federal fire crews stopped its eastward advance before it could cross Road E Southwest – about 16 miles to the east of the fire’s point of origin – which connects state Highways 26 and 24.
Deputy Kyle Foreman, spokesman for the Grant County Sheriff’s Office, said by the time he left Tuesday evening, hundreds of state and federal firefighters had arrived, including aircraft that dropped water on the flames.
“The fire got dealt a punch to the face,” he said.
Despite the stymied growth, hundreds of Central Washington residents remained temporarily homeless as mandatory evacuation orders continued Wednesday morning. Tuesday evening, about 25 households were evacuated in the small community of Smyrna, about 13 miles east of Beverly along Road 17 South West.
An emergency shelter was set up at Royal City Intermediate School.
Mandatory evacuations also were ordered for some residents living on Beverly Burke Road. The towns of Beverly, Schawana and Wanapum Village went under Level 2 evacuation notices, meaning residents were told to be ready to leave at a moment’s notice. Those remained in effect Wednesday.
However Michael Krueger, a DNR spokesperson on the fire, said he was hopeful mandatory evacuations would be lifted soon.
“It looks like the severity of the fire impending on residents has lessened,” he said.
As of Wednesday morning, McInturff reported no homes were damaged or destroyed. One garage was burned.
Because firefighting efforts when dealing with grass and brush fires are often at the mercy of the elements, McInturff said, the plan was to build up fire lines and ensure the blaze didn’t grow toward populated areas.
“We’re still just holding,” she said. “The public just needs to be safe and monitor the news stations.”
In Spokane and the rest of Eastern Washington, air quality too will depend on wind and fire activity to the west.
The Spokane Clean Air Agency said an approaching cold front with chance of rain could provide respite from smoke, but only if wind and fire activity cooperate.
The agency recorded air in the “unhealthy” range beginning at about 7 p.m. Tuesday night. Lisa Woodard, spokeswoman for the agency, said air quality reached its worst at about 8 p.m., with an index of 164 – 36 points from “very unhealthy” air.
Around the same time, the National Weather Service crowned Spokane’s air the “worst in the country.”
“ (It’s) a dubious honor and certainly not one most of us would choose,” the weather service tweeted.
Smoke also contributed to a 24-hour average of “moderate” air quality edging toward “unhealthy for some groups,” Woodard said.
By early Wednesday morning, Spokane moved back into the “moderate” range as smoke lingered. At 9 a.m. the Environmental Protection Agency listed the Lilac City the worst air quality in the state, with an index reading of 58.
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