Wildfire Smoke Blows Into Western Washington; Fires Burn East and West of Mountains

Scott Brownwell provided this photo for West Thurston Fire of the Mima Mounds Fire in South Thurston County Tuesday. 

GRAHAM, Pierce County — Fierce winds and dry, hot weather sparked dozens of wildfires throughout the state Monday and Tuesday, filling the Seattle area with smoke, forcing hundreds of families to flee their homes and knocking out power in thousands of others. One Washington town was nearly destroyed by a blaze south of Spokane.

The fires made for miserable air quality in parts of Western Washington, after the blazes erupted on both sides of the Cascades. Fire crews in California and Oregon also battled fast-moving flames, prompting mass evacuations.

Gov. Jay Inslee said in a Tuesday news conference about 330,000 acres had burned in the previous 24 hours, more than double the acreage burned last year in Washington. Crews were still working on nine "significant" fires in the state as of Tuesday afternoon.

"This is an unprecedented and heartbreaking event ... We're living in a new world. This is not the old Washington," Inslee said Tuesday. "A fire that you might've seen that was going to be OK over time isn't OK anymore because the conditions are so dry, they're so hot, they're so windy -- because the climate has changed."

Inslee hasn't declared an emergency in any counties, but said he was considering taking further action to speed up assistance to those in need.

West of the Cascades, a brush fire tore through a neighborhood in Graham, while another fire burned Tuesday in a forested area near Enumclaw and Highway 410.

The Graham fire forced about 100 people to evacuate Monday and destroyed six homes and a few other structures, according to Steve Richards, assistant chief for Graham Fire and Rescue. No injuries were reported.

Tim VanBrocklin stood Tuesday surveying the damage in his neighborhood, eyeing smoking hot spots amid the wreckage of scorched homes and vehicles.

He and others in the neighborhood evacuated Monday night with almost no notice.

"You didn't have time to pack clothes, it was like, get out, now," said VanBrocklin, a construction worker who is in his 50s. As he and others left, "It was pretty nasty here, embers flying around our faces."

His home escaped damage. But VanBrocklin said he's never seen a fire like this during his 16 years in the neighborhood. He said he worried powerful winds would return to kick up lingering embers.

While the fire is still under investigation, Richards said it is believed that the high winds likely brought a tree down on nearby power lines, sparking the blaze. Richards described the "firestorm" as a challenge due to the wind, the dry vegetation and the darkness in which the firefighters had to fight it.

By Monday night, easterly winds were pushing smoke into the Seattle area, and it kept coming all night long.

Sunrise looked more like sunset Tuesday morning, with the sun rising big and orange, and casting coppery light over the morning landscape, as the sun's rays filtered through smoke.

Air quality was reported as unhealthy around Seattle by the state Department of Ecology. National Weather Service meteorologist Maddie Kristell said Tuesday evening that wildfire smoke will continue to linger in the air throughout the region, though it'll ebb and flow as winds shift. The weather service has also issued air quality concerns and advisories that will extend until at least Wednesday afternoon.

The gusty winds on Monday also left Puget Sound Energy with lots of work to do restoring power around the region. Inslee said Tuesday more than 100,000 customers were without power in Washington.

Brush fires in Sumner and Bonney Lake also closed a portion of State Route 167.

Many parts of the state are in for hot, dry weather this week, which will sustain critical fire conditions. Areas in the southwest and the interior will see temperatures into the 90s. Seattle, which normally enjoys temperatures in the 70s at this time of year, will instead be in the upper 80s.

The weather service has issued a warning that elderly people, children, people experiencing homelessness and those with health issues are at risk because of the heat. It is especially important not to leave children or pets in a car or outdoors unattended.

The extended outlook is for a switch from offshore flow to onshore flow, which will cool temperatures somewhat on Friday and Saturday. But temperatures will still be warmer than normal.

Climate change stokes wildfire risks

The conditions the state is experiencing now are predicted to be more common.

Climate models forecast hotter, drier summers and wetter winters, Washington state climatologist Nick Bond said. Both can set up perfect conditions for fire, as lush vegetation grown in the spring dries out and is just waiting for conditions, like over the holiday weekend, to spark fire.

Adding to the woe on Monday was a complicated mix of downstream effects from typhoons in the North Pacific, Bond said. Those distant storms set up a rumpus in the atmosphere that blasted the region with wind.

Gusty winds when trees are still in full leaf make for more ruckus. All those leaves create enormous forces of drag, snapping tree limbs that can fall on power lines.

When conditions are also primed for fire, we get what firefighters are battling now.

"These drier summers will likely be in our future," Bond said. "We definitely see a warming trend and lower elevation snowpacks dwindling, overall."

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is crucial to reduce the most extreme effects of climate change, including hotter temperatures and more extreme fires.

For some, there is no more extreme event than what has already happened: The tiny town of Malden, Whitman County, was nearly wiped out by fire Monday. Within hours, many of the homes in Malden, population 200, were on fire. The town lost its post office, city hall, fire station, and other important buildings, according to Sheriff Brett Myers.

Inslee said Tuesday town officials told him it "looked like a bomb had gone off" there, and confirmed about 80% of the town had been destroyed in the blaze.

"The scale of this disaster really can't be expressed in words. The fire will be extinguished, but a community has been changed for a lifetime," Myers said.

More fires rage

DNR closed all of its lands east of the Cascades to recreation at least through Friday because of fire danger, Hilary Franz, Commissioner of Public Lands, announced Tuesday afternoon.

She called the wildfire event Monday "historic," adding, "The destruction we have seen is unimaginable."

The overwhelming majority of wildfires DNR is fighting are presumed to be human-caused. Already this year, the agency has responded to 106 fires caused by recreation.

As of Tuesday afternoon, about 1,500 firefighters had been deployed throughout the state, Franz said during Inslee's news conference. Hurricane-force winds also grounded the state's planes and helicopters, which slowed its initial response, she said.

"That's something we have not seen," Franz said.

The Cold Springs/Pearl Hill complex was burning on Tuesday north of the Columbia River near Omak, and south of the river, near State Highway 2. As of Tuesday morning, the complex had devoured about 257,000 acres, about evenly split between the two locations, and was not at all contained, according to the DNR.

Those two fires later split off; as of Wednesday morning, the Pearl Hill fire east of Bridgeport had been reduced to 160,000 acres but was only 10% contained, while the Cold Springs fire south of Omak had grown to 163,000 acres and remained extreme.

In addition, the Apple Acres fire had burned about 5,000 acres of Chelan County three miles northeast of Chelan as of Tuesday, and then grew to 6,300 acres by Wednesday morning. The fire, which began Monday morning, is burning through grass, brush and timber and threatening structures, and was 36% contained as of Wednesday morning.

The Inchelium Complex also began Monday morning and is burning north of Inchelium, in Ferry County on the Colville Indian Reservation. DNR characterized the fire as extreme, and it was already causing evacuations and threatening structures and the closure of trails and roads on Tuesday. By Wednesday morning, it had burned 8,000 acres.

The Manning Road fire is burning northeast of Colfax in Whitman County and has burned through at least 2,000 acres of grass since it began Monday morning. It is 0% contained.

The Beverly Burke fire is burning 7 miles southeast of Vantage, Kittitas County, and has burned more than 900 acres of grass and brush. It is 30% contained and is threatening structures and closing roads.

The Babb Fire is burning 5 miles northwest of Rosalia in Whitman County and has burned through 400 acres of grass and brush since it started on Monday; the Whitney Fire in Lincoln County is burning north of Spokane and has torched about 5,000 acres of grass and brush. The Customs Road Fire, burning a mile west of Curlew in Okanogan County, has destroyed about 600 acres of grass and brush since it started on Monday and is forcing evacuations and road closures.

The Cold Springs Canyon/Pearl Hill fire burning in north-central Washington forced evacuation orders Monday that then were canceled by the Douglas County Sheriff's Office because smoke conditions were so bad that it was not safe to drive on any of the roads out of the area. People were instead advised to shelter in place or seek refuge in the Mansfield School gymnasium.

Meanwhile, the Evans Canyon fire was contained Tuesday and firefighters demobilized, according to the DNR. The fire, which burned about 118 square miles, started Aug. 31 in the Wenas Valley in tall grass, brush and timber in Yakima and Kittitas counties. The cause remains under investigation.

Washington was granted federal assistance for three of the fires, including the Apple Acres, Cold Springs/Pearl Hill and Babb blazes, said Robert Ezelle, director of the Washington Emergency Management Division, during the Tuesday news conference. He said he's hoping the state will qualify for additional aid in the coming days.

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