Up to 160 houses remain threatened by a series of wildfires that already have destroyed at least 21 homes plus several businesses near Chelan, and scorched more than 100,000 acres.
CHELAN — With more hot, dry weather expected this week, officials are bracing against a series of fast-moving wildfires that scorched more than 100,000 acres and destroyed as many as 75 homes and businesses over the weekend.
Up to 160 homes remain threatened by the blazes, including as many as 100 by the Wolverine and Reach Complex fires and up to 60 by the First Creek fire, said Chris Schulte, manager of the team coordinating the firefighting.
Thousands of people have been evacuated.
With firefighting resources stretched thin both around the state and region, emergency-management officials and firefighters are working primarily to save the threatened structures.
“We don’t have enough resources to put this huge containment line around all the fire,” said Sgt. Kent Sisson with the Chelan County Sheriff’s Office.
Still, Schulte said firefighters have enough resources to manage the current blazes and fire crews have secured Holden Village against the Wolverine Fire, which is burning northwest of Chelan.
One hundred National Guard members with fire training are being deployed, and officials say international crews will be sought to help fight the blazes.
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It will remain hot and dry in the region this week, with highs in the 90s, according to Matt Fugazzi, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Spokane. Afternoon gusts may continue to be unpredictable, and winds could pick up more on Thursday night and Friday, he said.
“There’s no real relief here in the next foreseeable future … even though the winds have calmed down,” said Bill Queen, a spokesman for the interagency firefighting team.
The Reach fire started as five small lightning fires grew together on Chelan Butte and raced northwest along the southern edge of Chelan. A strong wind changed Friday afternoon, sending the fire east into south Chelan and across the Columbia River into Douglas County. The Reach, Antoine and Cagle fires merged to form what is now named the Reach Complex, which has grown to about 85 square miles, according to the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center. It was not yet contained by Sunday evening.
If officials had more resources, they would be able to quickly build containment lines around the fire, according to Queen. But firefighters have “been in a defensive mode, to where we’ve just been trying to save structures and property and save lives,” he said.
The fire destroyed at least a handful of businesses, including the Chelan Fruit complex — which was still smoking Sunday afternoon — and a lumber business, according to Sisson.
More than 2,700 people had been told to evacuate as of Sunday morning, according to Sisson. Fifty-four people stayed overnight Saturday in Red Cross shelters, said Colin Downey, spokesman for the organization. He expected about the same number Sunday night.
The organization has shelters open in Brewster, Chewelah, Hunters, East Wenatchee, Entiat and Republic.
About 2,000 business and residential customers in and around Chelan were still without power Sunday afternoon, according to the Chelan County Public Utilities District. That is down from 9,000 on Saturday, said Kimberlee Craig, spokeswoman for the district. Crews are working to restore power to those customers as well as Internet service in the region, said Craig.
Several businesses in downtown Chelan — a bookshop, a boutique, a kitchen store and a pizzeria, among others — had posted hand-drawn signs indicating they were closed Sunday. Some said it was due to the loss of power, others because workers were sorting out their lives in the wake of the fires.
Ruby Theatre, however, was reopening for two showings of the movie “Inside Out,” after being closed Friday and Saturday after losing electricity. A signboard outside advertised a free small popcorn to moviegoers.
It was an effort, said owner Larry Hibbard, whose home was undamaged, to help the theater “feel like we’re doing something.”
An exercise in triage
The Chelan fires are just some of the many devastating the state. And with wildland fires also raging in Idaho, California, Montana and Oregon, resources around the region are stretched to the limit.
Both Washington and Oregon have reached the most severe level on a national wildfire preparedness designation.
The Northwest Interagency Coordination Center, the group that coordinates state and federal agency response to wildfires, said more than 2,200 firefighters and support personnel were working in Washington as of Sunday, with 5,400 in Oregon.
Nationally, every available wildfire crew, engine and aircraft is committed to a fire, a spokeswoman for the center said.
The national fire coordination center on Friday asked the Department of Defense for aid, the first request for ground personnel since 2006.
The Washington National Guard over the weekend mobilized about 200 people to battle the fires, including all five of the guard’s 20-person wildfire teams. Also heading to the fires Sunday were an additional Black Hawk helicopter crew and maintenance team and disaster-response groups for tasks like setting up tents for firefighters. A kitchen crew is expected to deploy on Monday.
“It’s no secret that resources are stretched, and folks are looking elsewhere to see what can be brought in,” said Karina Shagren, a spokeswoman for the Washington Military Department. “There could be the potential that we start looking out of state for more.”
The Washington Guard has 125 more people with wildfire training available, though they need crew bosses to go into the field.
For those battling the fires, it’s an exercise in triage with limited resources.
The group coordinating the region’s response said some of the firefighters working to contain a 122-acre fire in North Cascades National Park were reassigned, and a fire burning nearby was virtually unattended because of other, more pressing fires.
Washington National Guard crews were initially slated to head to the Cougar Creek fire near Mount Adams. But when fires converged near Chelan, the Guard units were directed there, said Joe Smillie, a spokesman for the Department of Natural Resources.
“We were hoping to get those guys here to get out in front of it a little better,” said Smillie, who’s been on site at the Cougar Creek fire since Tuesday. “Everybody’s spread thin, and there’s not too many reinforcements in the area.”
For now, Smillie said, they would make do with the crew of firefighters assembled from the DNR, Forest Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and Yakima Nation, as well as some private contractors.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency said it had approved a slate of requests to help pay the state’s wildfire tab. Federal funds will be available to cover 75 percent of Washington’s firefighting costs for the Reach complex, Okanogan County and Stevens County fires, as well as the Stickpin fire in Ferry County.
The federal grants don’t cover losses for homes and businesses, or other infrastructure damage.