Firefighting crews working across the eastern portions of Washington and North Idaho continued battling invading smoke and rising temperatures Friday as they sought to extinguish blazes that have burned hundreds of thousands of acres since Monday.
As of Friday morning, the state had 14 active large fires with 626,982 acres burned, Gov. Jay Inslee announced in a news conference Friday afternoon. About 5,000 people across the state have evacuated their homes.
Large fires: Cold Springs, Pearl Hill and Whitney
The Cold Springs fire near Omak has burned nearly 188,000 acres since igniting Sunday evening. The cause of the fire, which resulted in the death of a 1-year-old and sent his parents to the hospital with severe burns, remains under investigation.
Fire activity has decreased in the past couple of days, said Jeff Sevigney of Northeast Washington Incident Management Team 3, but there are many downed power lines in the area that are making firefighting efforts more difficult.
“We’re trying to give the power companies as much room as possible,” Sevigney said.
Also complicating efforts is the demand on aerial resources from all the fires in the area, he said. A helicopter has assisted ground crews, and firefighting efforts Friday were focused east of Omak Lake and the Haley Lake area, according to the incident management team.
Bret Daugherty, commander of the Washington National Guard, said in a Friday news conference that the guard was stretched a little thin with helicopters, but it has backup if needed.
The biggest problem is that California, Oregon and Washington are all burning at the same time this year, he said. In his conversations with the Department of Natural Resources, however, Daugherty said he was confident that the state has enough forces.
Livestock can be taken to the Okanogan County Fairgrounds and the RV campgrounds are open. Level 2 and 3 evacuations remain in place for the fire and haven’t changed much over the past few days, Sevigney said. The Red Cross is coordinating shelter services in Brewster. The agency can be reached at (509) 670-5331.
The fire is 25% contained as of Friday morning. Temperatures into the 90s and low humidity were seen in the firefighting areas Friday.
New mapping conducted in the past 24 hours has shown the Pearl Hill fire, which started after the Cold Springs fire jumped the Columbia River and burned southern portions of Douglas County near Bridgeport, is substantially larger than previously believed. The fire is believed to have burned nearly 220,000 acres of brush and tall grass in areas east of Bridgeport and Mansfield.
“We’ve had so much bad smoke. Yesterday, they were able to pin that down,” said Wayne Patterson, a public information officer for the fire, on Friday morning.
Much of the active fire is confined to areas just south of the Columbia River and east of Bridgeport, Patterson said.
“That north end of the fire is pretty busy. That’s the part where we have the most active fire,” he said.
Evacuations have been eased in the area of Mansfield from a Level 3 to a Level 2, according to the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office. That includes areas south of town, bounded by highways 172, 17 and U.S. Highway 2. Level 2 evacuations mean that residents should be prepared to leave quickly if conditions change.
A virtual community meeting was held on Facebook on Friday evening to give residents an update on the fire. Viewers can check out information, even if they don’t have a Facebook account, at facebook.com/newfireinfo.
The Pearl Hill fire was 50% contained as of Friday morning, Patterson said. Efforts Friday focused on preventing the fire from spreading east with shifting winds anticipated.
The Whitney Fire in Lincoln County grew slightly Thursday night to 123,000 acres. The fire near Davenport has burned at least four homes and many outbuildings. Level 3 evacuations remain in place in areas northeast of Davenport, according to the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office.
A new incident command team arrived on scene, which typically means additional resources to fight the fire, said Gayne Sears, public information officer for the Whitney fire. The blaze started Monday morning and is believed to have been caused by a downed power line.
The fire was 20% contained as of Friday morning. Some smoke may be seen in the area in the coming days because there are unburned materials within the perimeter of the fire, Sears said. Firefighters will attempt to extinguish any flames that threaten the fire line, which is holding, she said.
Three fires burning on the Colville reservation grew to a combined 17,000 acres-plus, with 25% containment as of Friday morning, according to firefighters.
The Fry, Kewa Fields and Inchelium Highway fires were all burning in a mix of trees and grass east and southeast of the town of Inchelium. The cause of the fires is under investigation. The Kewa Fields fire, south of the town of Kewa, spread northwest Thursday night, according to firefighters. Level 3 evacuations were in place nearby, and Level 2 evacuations are in place in the area extending two miles north of Stray Dog Canyon, and for residents near Hall Creek Road and Seyler Valley Road.
Three structures have burned in the area. Livestock can be moved to the Okanogan County Fairgrounds, and those needing shelter can contact the Red Cross at the number listed above. Donations for those affected by the fires are being collected at the LIHEAP Building in Nespelem and the Omak Community Center.
Whitman County fires
Crews continued to investigate hot spots Friday inside the fire lines of a blaze that devastated the small town of Malden earlier this week, burning 80% of the homes.
More than 100 personnel are still fighting a trio of fires in the area. The largest, the Babb/Malden fire, had 0% containment as of Friday morning, with crews patrolling the towns and looking for smoke.
Inslee on Thursday offered cash assistance to residents who’d lost property due to the fire, which spread quickly Monday. A cause is still under investigation.
“The need is substantial,” Inslee said Friday. “I hope this is a small thing to help people in the days ahead.”
Pine City-Malden Road is closed to the public from the west side of Pine City to the east side of Malden. The towns of St. John, Sunset, Thornton and Ewan remained under Level 1 evacuations as of Friday morning.
On Friday, Inslee pointed to the dry air as cause for most of the fires from this past weekend, calling the entire state a tinderbox. Because most of the fires last weekend involved grassland and brushland, no forest management or thinning program could have stopped them.
“This is not natural,” Inslee said. “It’s an entirely new situation and it is caused by climate change.”
The National Weather Service issued an air quality alert for all of Eastern Washington through 11 a.m. Monday. Shifting winds were expected to bring wildfire smoke from blazes burning in Oregon and California into the Inland Northwest starting Friday evening.
Air quality across the region could vary from moderate to hazardous, the National Weather Service warned.
The air quality index in Spokane had reached the moderate level as of late Friday morning, meaning that prolonged periods outside could be harmful to those with breathing problems. Health experts recommend those with breathing problems remain indoors and keep their windows closed.
Washington State University suspended operations on campus and online Friday due to deteriorating air quality from wildfire smoke.
Local journalism is essential.
The journalists of The Spokesman-Review are a part of the community. They live here. They work here. They care. You can help keep local journalism strong right now with your contribution. Thank you.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.