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Live: Crews continue to battle expansive blazes in Eastern Washington, North Idaho on Tuesday

UPDATED: Tue., Sept. 8, 2020

A massive pile of harvested wheat smolders at a grain elevator in the Malden-Pine City area on Tuesday, one day after a wildfire destroyed many structures.  (Chad Sokol / The Spokesman-Review)
A massive pile of harvested wheat smolders at a grain elevator in the Malden-Pine City area on Tuesday, one day after a wildfire destroyed many structures. (Chad Sokol / The Spokesman-Review)
From staff reports</p><p>

One day after wildfires ravaged the Whitman County town of Malden, burned structures and closed roads in Eastern Washington, and led to evacuations in Central Washington, crews continued to work to control a number of largely uncontained blazes in the region.

Gov. Jay Inslee said an estimated 330,000 acres in Washington burned in a 24-hour period, which is more than the state has seen in an entire fire season in some previous years.

During a Tuesday afternoon news conference, he called the fire that swept through Malden “one of the most devastating ever,” with as much as 80% of the town destroyed.

One resident told him “it looked like a bomb had gone off,” Inslee added. He said he will probably visit the town Thursday.

A decision on whether to seek an emergency declaration for Whitman County will be made “as fast as humanly possible,” he said, but will have to wait for an estimate of all of the damages.

“You can be assured that if it would be helpful, and if it qualifies, we would certainly make that recommendation,” Inslee said. “I don’t think anyone will have certainty by the end of the week. We have to assemble the amount of damage in a county and see if that qualifies to reach federal thresholds.”

Federal assistance is often “less robust” for private losses, and often offers more help for public assets like utilities and libraries, he said. The state currently has National Guard troops fighting fires and would consider sending the Guard to assist in Malden if it was the best way to provide some of the community’s needed resources.

Fires were also burning in Central and Western Washington. Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz said there were 58 reported fire “starts” on Monday. Although the Department of Natural Resources and local fire departments were able to put most of them out, the state was listing nine significant fires in Eastern Washington.

Many of them were spreading rapidly in high winds, which on Monday grounded planes and helicopters the state usually deploys to control fires at their outset.

By Tuesday Franz said there were 1,500 firefighters deployed, with planes and helicopters able to fly fire suppression missions. But with changing weather conditions “we may need to ground them again,” Franz said.

All of the fires are believed to be caused by humans because there has been no lightning in recent days, she said. Investigations are not yet complete that will determine the exact causes and it was unknown if any were deliberately set.

With wind-whipped fires around the state, and strong gusts taking down trees and power lines, at one point an estimated 100,000 people were without power Tuesday, Inslee said.

Because of extreme fire danger, Department of Natural Resources recreational areas in Eastern Washington were closed at least through Friday. A burn ban is in place for campfires and any brush burning. State officials were also asking residents to take extra precautions to avoid any sparks that can start a fire and not park vehicles over dry grass.

Washington State Patrol Chief John Batiste urged drivers who smoke to “please use your ash tray.”

Large fires

Hilary Franz, the state’s commissioner of public lands, said in a tweet that nine large fires were burning statewide as of Tuesday morning. She announced plans to travel to Malden on Wednesday.

Three of those large fires are in Eastern Washington.

They grew larger than 100 square miles – or 64,000 acres – on Monday as a windstorm overwhelmed fire services. On Tuesday, crews were working to get a handle on the fires, though none had been contained as of about 7 a.m., according to a news release from the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center.

The Cold Springs fire started late Sunday about three miles south of Omak. It spread fast and jumped the Columbia River in the morning, starting the Pearl Hill fire. As of Tuesday morning, the Cold Springs fire was measured at about 255 square miles – or about 163,000 acres – after the Pearl Hill fire was split off from it and considered a separate blaze. Evacuations and road closures remain in place. About 200 firefighters were on the ground battling the fire, and air support was expected. Multiple structures have been lost, according to a news release.

The Pearl Hill fire was sparked when the Cold Springs fire jumped the Columbia River into Douglas County. The fire forced the evacuations of Bridgeport and Mansfield. It was last measured at nearly 271 square miles – or 174,000 acres. The blaze was exhibiting “extreme fire behavior” as it burned through grass and brush on Tuesday, the NICC said in a news release. Structures remained threatened and evacuations were in place Tuesday morning.

The Hawk Creek Fire, which has also been referred to as the Whitney Road Fire, started north of U.S. Highway 2 between Creston and Davenport and traveled south across the highway and then west, almost reaching state Highway 21. It was last measured at 117 square miles – or 75,000 acres – and was 0% contained. Structures remained threatened and evacuations were in place Tuesday morning.

West Plains

Crews were also still battling a pair of blazes on the West Plains, according to Peggy Callahan, administrative director with Spokane County Fire District 10.

The Trails Road fire continued to burn and a level 2 evacuation remained in place as of 9:45 a.m. Tuesday, meaning residents in the areas should “be ready to go at a moments notice,” Callahan said.

Department of Natural Resource crews took over management Tuesday of the 80-acre Christensen Road Fire near Fairchild Airforce Base.

Crews had a perimeter around the fire and were monitoring it to make sure it didn’t grow. The fast-moving fire was fueled by wind and burned in grass and pine trees. It took out several outbuildings, one home and damaged another, said incident commander Jeff Fuller.

“We are pretty happy about the conditions,” Fuller said after the wind died down overnight and the temperature dropped into the 40s.

But it was a huge concern Monday afternoon as the fire raced through pine trees, jumped a dirt field, burned wheat and crossed Highway 2 next to a Fire District 10 station.

“It was moving. It was really good to catch it on this side” of Highway 2, Fuller said. “Fire District 10 crews were the heroes here. They had a lot of folks and did a really good job getting on it.”

Fire crews from Spokane and Fairchild also assisted.

The fire, which remains under investigation, won’t be listed as contained until crews are sure that hot spots have been extinguished, said Kyle Pomrankey, who is DNR’s operations manager for the fire.

Pomrankey said the homeowners had very little time to get out from the windswept fire.

“They said they did have some heads up, but they just had to leave,” he said.

“It was on them in a matter of minutes,” Fuller said.

Crews were not allowing anyone except homeowners past a road block Tuesday.

Neighbor Cameron Baldlwin, 29, who lives just north of the fire on Christensen Road, said he and his wife were camping Monday when they got news of the fire.

They raced home and evacuated their four pigs just in case.

“When we heard about it, we were a little concerned, but it sounded like they got it under control pretty quickly.”

While neither fire is “fully contained,” Callahan said crews were making progress battling both, aided in part by winds dying down and the “coolness” that came in overnight and remained into the morning.

Level 2 evacuations remain place for the Christensen Road Fire.

Whitman County

Sydney McBride, public information officer trainee for the Southeast Washington Interagency team, said two fires in Whitman County remained uncontained Tuesday morning, while a third southwest of Colfax was 100% contained.

That fire, known as the Colfax Fire, started Monday at about 11 a.m. and grew to 5 acres before being suppressed.

The Manning Road Fire continues to burn some 2,000 acres northeast of Colfax. It was 0% contained as of Tuesday morning. Evacuations remained in place, and structures were threatened. It also started at 11 a.m. Monday.

The Babb Road Fire that burned through Malden and Pine City on Monday also remained 0% contained as of Tuesday morning, McBride said.

Don Crawford, deputy chief of Spokane County Fire District 3, said crews from his department were among those continuing to battle the Babb fire.

The fire was 8,000 acres as of Tuesday at 10:45 a.m. Crews are continuing structure protection and “scouting opportunities for control lines,” McBride said.

Crawford said crews still have a “significant amount of suppression and (fire) line to put in. We’re just getting started on it.”

On Monday, he said, efforts focused on “point protection, saving as many houses as we could with the limited resources we had.”

As of Tuesday morning, Crawford said crews had surrounded “basically every savable structure” and were moving their focus to containment and suppression.” Those efforts will “continue a 24-hour process until we get good containment lines.”

While Fire District 3 still has resources out on the Babb Road fire, Crawford said command of the fire has been taken over by a state mobilization team.

McBride said Pine City and Malden “experienced significant structure loss yesterday.” Today, she said, the goal is to identify “destroyed homes and structures.”

She also indicated officials do not believe anyone was killed in the area fires.

“There are no reports of missing people from those towns as of this morning,” McBride said Tuesday.

One Manning resident was treated for smoke inhalation, however, and one firefighter suffered minor injuries but was not transported to the hospital for treatment.

While “the winds have died down” from Monday, McBride said they haven’t gone away entirely and are still forecast to be 7-10 mph with gusts up to 17 mph.

Twenty-five engines and five strike teams were working the Babb and Manning fires, according to McBride. They have not received any air support.

Existing level 3 evacuations in Whitman County remain unchanged, she said.

North Idaho

Crews also battling fires in North Idaho on Tuesday.

The Bernard Fire, which started Monday on Lake Pend Oreille, was 0% contained as of Tuesday morning, according to Kary Maddox with the U.S. Forest Service.

Maddox said the fire started on the beach in Echo Bay and climbed toward Bernard Peak. The cause of the fire is unknown.

Efforts to drop water on the blaze were unsuccessful Monday, but four airplanes were assisting three engines and two attack crews on Tuesday. The fire was an estimated 80 acres as of 11 a.m.

The Hunter 2 Fire, located a ½ mile northeast of Blanchard near the junction of Hunter Road and Highway 41, has grown to approximately 600 acres, according to InciWeb, which tracks wildfires. The fire has crossed Highway 41 to the Stoneridge Golf Course area. No information was immediately available about its containment.

Northern Lights Power crews continued to work to restore power outages on Priest Lake, caused by sustained winds greater than 30 mph early Monday.

The National Weather Service reported sustained winds topping out at 37 mph on the lake in North Idaho at noon Monday, capping a period of several hours in which gusty north winds caused whitecaps and felled trees.

Northern Lights reported widespread outages on the east shore of the lake that had yet to be repaired. Some outages on the western shore had been repaired as of Tuesday evening.

Elkins Resort, at the mouth of Reeder Creek, was open and operating on generator power, according to a woman working the desk Tuesday afternoon.

Other areas of North Idaho reported even gustier winds Monday morning, according to the National Weather Service in Spokane. The strongest gusts, topping out at 54 mph, were reported at the Sandpoint airport.

Northern Lights reported a total of about 3,600 customers still without power Tuesday evening.

Road and land closures

The Washington State Department of Transportation announced early Tuesday morning a number of road closures in Eastern Washington as a result of firefighting efforts. Closed roads as of noon include the following:

  • U.S. 2 from S.R. 172 to S.R. 17
  • U.S. 97 from Brewster to Omak
  • S.R. 821 from Ellensburg to East Selah

The state Department of Natural Resources announced Tuesday that all DNR-managed lands east of the Cascades are closed to recreation as a result of the high fire danger.

The closure will last at least through Friday.

The Washington Emergency Management Division warned on Twitter that air quality in Central and Eastern Washington is taking a bit of a dive “s… with the potential to get even worse” on Wednesday. Local air monitors can be viewed at airnow.gov.

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