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Wednesday, August 5, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Weathercatch: Wildfires in the time of COVID spawn new challenges

After high winds (Courtesy of Colville Agency, Bureau of Indian Affairs)
After high winds (Courtesy of Colville Agency, Bureau of Indian Affairs)
By Nic Loyd and </p><p>Linda Weiford For The Spokesman-Review

While caught up in the throes of a pandemic, Mother Nature recently reminded us of another threat looming in our state: Wildfires.

Not only did our region notch our hottest day of 2020, but we experienced the year’s first wide-scale Red Flag Warning for heightened wildfire danger.

With the COVID-19 pandemic going on, it’s a fire season like no other. Firefighting teams must follow newly-written guidelines for fighting blazes to protect human lives and property while staying safe from a highly contagious virus.

Last Friday, fire crews braced for challenging work when a combination of hot temperatures, dry conditions and wind gusts prompted the National Weather Service Spokane to expand its fire warning to encompass 13 counties in Eastern Washington, including Spokane County and surrounding areas.

Throughout the day, winds blew from 25-31 mph, with gusts peaking as high as 37 mph in Wenatchee. Although it was relatively cool on that date, a hot spell immediately preceded it, along with weeks without getting a good, wetting rain. Consequently, vegetation was nearly as dry as kindling.

Then strong winds blew in, and the stage was set for wildfires. Just as COVID-19 spreads more readily under certain weather conditions, so do wildfires.

One blaze flickered to life south of Wenatchee on Friday afternoon, quickly spreading through grass, brush and sage and threatening 110 homes, according to the Southeast Washington Interagency Incident Management Team. Lighter winds over the weekend aided firefighting crews in getting the 3,400 acre Colockum Fire under control.

Meanwhile, 118 miles away, those same strong winds accelerated a blaze that had erupted on the Colville Indian Reservation only a day earlier on July 23. The Greenhouse fire quickly swept through tall, dry grasses, sage, bitter brush and scattered timber near the town of Nespelem, according to the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Indian Reservation.

By Friday afternoon, the blaze was visible from space when satellite images captured a thermal hot spot. “Heat from the Greenhouse fire, near Nespelem was intense enough to show up on satellite data this afternoon,” the NWS-Spokane wrote in a Facebook post. “The fire is sending up a sizable smoke column as well, which is drifting off to the east.”

Before the end of the weekend, more than 5,000 acres had burned and several outbuildings were destroyed, including the Colville Tribal Recycling Facility, according to the Colville Tribes. The blaze is expected to be fully contained by the end of this week, the agency said in an online update.

Though the cause of the Greenhouse and Colockum fires remain under investigation, it’s important to note that Washington is seeing an uptick in human-caused fires this summer, according to the state Department of Natural Resources. With two-thirds of them occurring east of the Cascades, residents are urged to be cautious and observe burn restrictions.

After all, just as we wear masks to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, we can also take steps to prevent the spread of wildfires.

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