High winds fueled a flurry of wildfires in Central and Eastern Washington. Crews made progress Sunday and Monday, but the weather forecast is cause for concern.
Thousands of acres were scorched over the weekend as firefighters around the state wrestled to corral fast-moving wildfires spurred on by high winds.
In Yakima and Benton counties, winds pushed the Range 12 fire toward the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, gobbling up about 70,000 acres of grassland, according to fire information officer Randall Rishe.
Firefighters on Monday were building a fire line on the eastern flank of the blaze, along Highway 240, to keep the fire from nearing the contaminated nuclear site.
Near the roadway, firefighters were using controlled burns, or “turning the grass into black,” as Rishe put it, to choke the fire of fuel and stop its spread.
Rishe said the fire Sunday ripped through grass, sagebrush and cheatgrass with ferocity. Because of the strong wind, the fire laid flat on the ground with flames 10 to 14 feet long, Rishe said.
Firefighters were able to save several structures Sunday, including their own incident management post, a cafe on Highway 24. Winds whipped the fire toward the Silver Dollar Cafe, where firefighters had set up shop, but they were able to clear some fire line with a bulldozer and air-drop some fire retardant to stop the fire from consuming the eatery, Rishe said. They’ve since moved shop to Benton City.
Rishe said more than 100 firefighters are working to corral the blaze, and more have been ordered in from other areas.
He also said a drone flying Saturday night interrupted firefighters’ work.
“We had to suspend air operations,” he said, referring to the helicopters and planes doing water drops and surveillance on the fire. “Air resources don’t put out fires; they slow the progression of fires so we can put firefighters in front.”
Across Eastern Washington, smaller fires popped up and gave communities a scare before firefighters were able to dig in as winds relaxed.
In Lincoln County, firefighters Monday are mopping up another grass fire, about 12 miles west of Odessa, said Alan Hoffmeister, a fire-information officer for the Black Rock Road Fire. Smoke from that fire made its way over to Spokane.
Abandoned buildings and a barn were burned by the fire, which grew to more than 16,000 acres, Hoffmeister said. No homes were burned, and evacuation orders were lifted Sunday.
Crews are racing to put the fire down before winds make the situation more dangerous.
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“Tomorrow, they’re expecting another dry cold front with strong winds. We’re trying to get this wrapped up today,” Hoffmeister said.
About seven miles south of Dayton, firefighters Monday were also feeling more confident about the North Touchet fire, which started Saturday and at one point threatened more than 125 homes. Sunday night, that fire was about 80 percent contained.
“It was pretty touch-and-go at first,” said public-information officer Dwight Robanske. “The fire ran pretty good. When the wind started slowing down, we were able to get a better handle on it.”
No structures were burned, and evacuations were downgraded.
And near Chelan, about five miles north of Manson, about 150 firefighters were gaining control of the 540-acre Antilon Lake fire, which was on Washington Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Forest Service land.
Fifteen homes remained on level-one evacuation orders (be ready to leave), said Joe Smillie, of the DNR, but the fire was 65 percent contained. Bulldozers were being sent away, and Smillie was already thinking about the next fire.
“The weather later this week looks rough,” he said. “(I’m) not sure where we’re headed next.”