Dozens of wildfires continued to rage in the forests, grasslands and foothills of the Pacific Northwest on Thursday, blackening more than a million acres in Washington and Oregon while forcing evacuations and fouling the air with smoke and soot that is predicted to only get worse.
Officials have warned of a “super-massive” smoke plume, inching north from blazes roaring to the south, that could inundate the region. The state Department of Ecology forecasts unhealthy conditions for everyone Friday.
Gov. Jay Inslee, touring the charred remains of the town of Malden in Whitman County — which all but burned to the ground on Labor Day, leaving 200 residents homeless — issued a proclamation freeing up emergency state cash to help residents whose lives have been upended by the fires. Inslee said about 600,000 acres of the state have burned, more than half of that since Monday.
One death — a boy camping in Okanogan County with his parents from Renton — has been reported in Washington. The 1-year-old and his parents were apparently overtaken by the Cold Springs fire Tuesday. The parents were critically burned and are hospitalized at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.
Okanogan County Sheriff Tony Hawley said his detectives have begun a homicide investigation into the child’s death in the event the blaze turns out to have been human-caused.
The governor said it was shaping up to be worst fire year since 2015, when more than a million acres burned.
Neighboring Oregon is also battling huge fires. At least three people have died in blazes there and hundreds of homes and structures were destroyed in a series of fast-moving fires that has officials ordering the evacuations of thousands of residents of Clackamas County, just south of Portland.
The Northwest Interagency Coordinating Center said fires in Oregon showed considerable growth overnight Wednesday, while blazes burning in Washington grew at a more moderate pace — but grew nonetheless. Hot weather — Thursday was one of the hottest days of the year — contributed to the difficulty in fighting the fires, both from a weather and wind standpoint, and for the toll it exacts on firefighters.
Conditions, however, were improving. The agency’s outlook for “significant fire potential” throughout the region shows a decreased likelihood of large fires as winds shift to the west and humidity increases. Much of Eastern Washington, however, remains a tinderbox.
Even so, treacherous fire weather was expected to continue through Monday, and the shifting winds are expected to funnel smoke into Puget Sound, adding to the eye-stinging haze that’s already blanketing the area.
Weather officials warned a dense and “super-massive” plume of smoke was heading toward Western Washington which will further foul the air. Officials said the cloud of smoke and ash, mostly from monstrous fires burning in California and Oregon, was too high in the atmosphere at this point to cause serious health effects. But predictions are that it will mix downward over the next day and make for unhealthy air conditions overnight.
“Up until now, an easterly flow of air has kept much of the smoke and particles out over the Pacific,” said Justin Pullin, a senior forecaster and meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Seattle. But beginning late Thursday, he said, the air flow will transition to a southwesterly direction, pushing the murk into the Puget Sound region, he said.
Just how much of it will settle to the point of affecting air quality on the ground, Pullin said, wasn’t clear at this point, but it guarantees that we will see a noticeable change in sky conditions.
“This is not going to do anything to improve the air quality, that’s for sure,” he said.
Pullin said poor air quality alerts will remain in effect until 11 a.m. Monday throughout most of Western Washington, when there is hope that some precipitation will clear things out.
The largest fires burning in Eastern Washington — the Cold Springs and Pearl Hill fires — have burned more 346,000 acres in Okanogan and Douglas counties. Those two are parts of the same fire, but they started being administered separately when the flames jumped the Columbia River into Douglas County.
Okanogan County officials are particularly interested in the origins of the Cold Springs fire, since if it was human-caused the individual could face criminal charges in the death of Uriel Hyland, the boy who died Tuesday.
Sheriff’s officials said the family had been camping on their property and tried to outrun advancing flames. Their truck was found burned and abandoned. The couple had fled nearly a mile to the Columbia River, where they were found Wednesday morning by searchers. The child had already died. Hawley identified the child’s parents as 31-year-old Jacob Hyland and 26-year-old Jamie Hyland of Renton.
Gov. Jay Inslee said the child’s death marks the first fatality of the 2020 fire season.
“Trudi and I were heartbroken to hear about the loss of this child in the wildfires that have ravaged our state,” he said. “There is nothing I can say that can ease the pain from a loss of this magnitude. This child’s family and community will never be the same. And neither will countless others who are reeling from the utter devastation these wildfires are leaving in their wake.”
On Thursday, the Cold Springs fire was reported at 172,000 acres and 10% contained. The Pearl Hill fire had burned 174,000 acres and was 41% contained as of Wednesday night.
Overall, fire officials said more than 30 fires burning in Washington and Oregon have scorched more than 1.3 million acres.
Nowhere was the sudden devastation more evident than in the blackened stretch of road and charred foundations of what had been the town of Malden. In a matter of hours on Monday, in broad daylight, more than 80% of the town’s structures burned to the ground. Residents had just minutes to evacuate, said Mayor Christine Ferrell.
Whitman County Sheriff Brett Myers told The Spokesman Review that about 95 homes and 100 other structures were destroyed in the firestorm, including town hall, the library and fire station, with its aged engine still inside.
The tragedy drew the attention of Inslee, who toured Malden on Thursday, and from Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz, who on Wednesday joined Ferrell on an emotional tour of what had been the town’s Main Street.
Inslee said the wildfires have scorched 937 square miles of Washington just this week, which he called the “worst few days in wildfire history for Washington state.”
“We’ve had this trauma all over Washington,” Inslee said. “But this is the place where the whole heart of the town was torn out.”
Malden is a farm town set among wheat fields about 35 miles south of Spokane.
Crews have started work to restore utilities.
During her Wednesday tour of the town, where smoke could still be seen rising from the charred fields, Franz was obviously moved and stopped at one point to hug the mayor. She promised to replace the town’s fire truck, and argued for better funding for the state’s fire prevention and response mechanisms.
“Investing up front and getting at the root of the issue, having the resources to fight these fires and keep them small, and investing in the landscape of these communities to be more resilient will go farther in saving money and saving lives,” she said. “And people need to start to wake up to that.”
The windy conditions helped the Big Hollow fire in southwestern Washington — first reported Wednesday morning — grow from 6,000 to 22,000 acres in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. Officials there plan to close all developed campgrounds, dispersed camping, day-use areas, wilderness areas and all forest roads and trails within the southwestern portions of the forest.
According to the Columbian newspaper in Vancouver, residents of north Clark County were told Wednesday night to be ready to evacuate.
Meanwhile, a fire that caused evacuations in Bonney Lake on Wednesday night has been extinguished, according to the police. That blaze began behind a Target store and homes within a three-block radius were evacuated, police said.
Information from the Longview Daily News and The Associated Press is included in this report. Seattle Times staff reporter Hal Bernton contributed to this report.