Three wildfires burning in Okanogan County are prompting urgent level 3 evacuations in Nespelem, on the Colville Indian Agency and for residents of Owhi Flats along Cache Creek Road.
The level 3 evacuations, which mean ‘GO – Danger in your area is imminent and life threatening’ have been issued in response to the Chuweah Creek Fire, the county’s largest wildfire.
The blaze, first reported Monday, is actively growing, threatening homes, tribal facilities and outbuildings, according to the state Department of Natural Resources.
According to Okanogan County Emergency Management, residents should be aware of their surroundings, be cautious of emergency vehicles and not wait for door-to-door notification to act.
Highway 155 is open for evacuation, according to Okanogan County Emergency Management, and shelters are being set up at the Grand Coulee Elementary School gym and Nespelem Community Center at Schoolhouse Loop Road.
These are among the first level 3 evacuations ordered in response to wildfires this year. Record heat and drought have officials worried this wildfire season may devastate the American West.
By Tuesday, there were 16 new fires in Oregon and Washington, according to the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center. Many, including the Chuweah Creek fire, are believed to have been ignited by lightning.
Lightning that strikes the ground is usually divided into two categories, negative and positive strikes, depending on the ionic source region of the thunderstorm, according to the National Weather Service. While negative strikes are far more common, the positive strikes are more intense, have longer contact with the ground and are more likely to start a fire.
When lightning strikes in a dry area with timber, grass and rangeland, wind can whip smoldering embers into raging fires, the weather service explained.
Highway 20, also known as North Cascades Highway, is closed between milepost 170 and 177, about 20 miles west of Winthrop between Silver Star and Early Winters due to firefighting efforts to combat the Cedar Creek, Varden and Delancey fires. There is no current estimate on when the road will reopen.
The Department of Transportation said on Twitter that people are showing up at the closure point looking for a way around. Washington State Patrol Trooper John Bryant noted on Twitter that going around a closure point on a state route can result in a criminal citation.