SELAH, Yakima County — For weeks, Central Washington firefighters worried about increasingly dry conditions, and Tuesday their fears were realized.
In a matter of hours, flames fed by tinder-dry grasses and pushed by stiff winds blazed across an estimated 6,000 acres north of Selah, forcing evacuations and further fueling worries of a long, hot summer east of the Cascades.
By late afternoon, a shop and a barn had been reported destroyed, one home was damaged and residents of about a dozen homes had been told to evacuate.
By early evening, however, the fire slowed and turned northward into a section of the state’s Wenas Wildlife Area, an area with no homes or buildings.
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While only about 10 percent of the fire was considered contained, firefighters were beginning to relax a bit by evening.
“At this point, it’s looking pretty good,” said Selah Deputy Fire Chief Jim Martin. “We’re still doing structure protection, but it’s burning off into the sagebrush and away from the homes.”
That was not the case earlier in the day when two tanker planes, four helicopters, a hotshot team and at least 100 firefighters from across the Yakima Valley were rushed to the fast-moving fire.
Officials requested state mobilization to provide additional resources during the midafternoon height of the fire, as it burned up the slope of Umptanum Ridge and down to the Yakima River in several places.
“We did get the state mobilization so resources are on the way, and these volunteers can go home after a long day,” Martin said at 7 p.m.
First reported shortly before 11 a.m., the fire is believed to have started when sparks at an informal shooting range ignited dry grass in the Wenas Wildlife Area, Martin said. The man who was shooting was the first to report the fire.
Pushed by winds, the fire burned toward homes north of Selah. Firefighters worked throughout the afternoon and into the evening to protect those homes, said Jim Hall, with Yakima County Emergency Management.
About a dozen homes were under an evacuation order, but there were conflicting reports about whether the order was mandatory or strongly recommended.
Conditions are not expected to significantly improve Wednesday, when winds and gusts of up to 12 mph are expected, according to the National Weather Service.
Temperatures are expected to reach the lower 80s on Wednesday and 85 degrees on Thursday.
No rain is forecast for the Yakima Valley for at least a week.
For weeks, authorities had been warning about increasingly dry conditions on the lower slopes of the eastern Cascades, where evergreen forest gives way to sagebrush and grasses.
While the winter snowpack in the mountains remains adequate for the Yakima Basin’s irrigated crops, a well-below-average amount of rain fell at lower elevations this spring.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s drought monitor, the eastern half of the state is abnormally dry or in significant drought.
Dry summer weather is normal for the region, but authorities said grasses and brush have gotten much drier far earlier than usual.
Drying conditions are perhaps three or four weeks ahead of schedule, according to the USDA.
In May, Yakima County only got about a quarter of its average rainfall — 0.13 inch instead of 0.58 inch, and the forecast for June doesn’t include much rain.
Tuesday’s wildfire is the largest to strike the region this season, but hardly the first.
In the past month, at least three fires, ranging from 3 to 83 acres, have started in the 100,000-acre Wenas Wildlife Area.