Facing growing wildfire threats, Gifford Pinchot National Forest is planning 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.
On Wednesday, nearly a day after announcing the forest closings, National Forest officials could not predict when they would occur, as the Big Hollow Fire continued to grow.
“If you have plans to be in this area of the forest, please consider making alternate arrangements,” National Forest officials had said in a Tuesday press release.
There is also a forest-wide campfire ban that went into effect Wednesday. Local fire officials encouraged Cowlitz County residents to sign up for emergency alerts through the Cowlitz County Department of Emergency Management.
The Big Hollow fire is burning east and north of the Trapper Creek Wilderness. It was reported early Tuesday morning and is estimated to be about 6,000 to 10,000 acres in size and growing.
“Gifford Pinchot National Forest crews are assessing the situation and assisting with evacuations and clearing road corridors of downed trees resulting from recent heavy winds,” the press release said.
Wednesday afternoon, the Department of Natural Resources recommended a Level 2 evacuation notice for the Cougar area. A Level 2 means to be ready to go on a moment’s notice, or to leave immediately if extra time is needed. The area under the order stretches from Speelyai Park east to the Cowlitz County line and from Merrill Lake south to Cowlitz County line.
The Woodland School District announced Yale Elementary School will be closed Thursday due to heavy smoke and the evacuation alert.
The Longview Police Department said the area will see more smoke blowing in with shifting winds Wednesday. The department asked in a Facebook post that people not call 911 to report smoke unless they see an actual fire.
“It is highly advised not to do any activities that may cause a spark, including running power equipment, lawn mowers or having any kind of open flame outside,” the department also wrote in its post.
The Southwest Washington Clean Air Agency listed Longview’s air quality as unhealthy, close to very unhealthy, as of 5 p.m. Wednesday. The agency issued an air quality health advisory, recommending people avoid outdoor activities.
All burning in the city limits of Kelso, Longview, Kalama and Castle Rock is banned, including recreational fires, the Cowlitz County Fire Marshal announced Wednesday afternoon.
“The potential fire threat is extreme, given weather conditions in the area. Fire Chiefs within the county will be working together to support Cowlitz-Skamania Fire District 7 as the Big Hollow Fire burns toward the Yale Reservoir either by direct support with personnel and apparatus or by backing up agencies that are sending resources,” a Cowlitz 2 Fire & Rescue press release said.
“The main issue right now is that the danger of fire threat in our area is unprecedented. How we have moved through this without an incident so far is beyond me,” Fire Chief Dave Lafave said in the press release.
He said the current probability of ignition is at least 95%, “meaning if 100 embers land in a fuel bed at least 95 of them would cause ignition to the fuel,” causing rapid fire spread.
“We saw the impact of fires in March of 2019 within developed areas with less dangerous conditions,” LaFave added. “This fire threat is significant in the rural and city interface areas throughout our county.”
He said the Big Hollow Fire is burning toward Chelatchie Prairie and local departments “may soon be engaged or supporting that fire in various ways.”
“I think we’ll be out of this pretty soon, but until then, we’re asking the public to please be smart,” LaFave said. “Don’t burn anything, don’t run equipment or lawnmowers if possible and recognize this weather and the potential threats associated with it.”
Forest Supervisor Eric Veach said in the release that the current focus is in on keeping firefighters and the public safe. He asked that visitors avoid the area.
A Type II fire team has been ordered and will take over management of the fire once they arrive on scene, the press release said. And effective Wednesday morning the entire Gifford Pinchot National Forest is at a Industrial Fire Protection Level IV, meaning a general shutdown of the area. It is the highest protection level.
“It is important to note that the local area remains under threat of dangerous fire conditions with a combination of extreme heat, significant wind events, dry conditions, and firefighting resources that are stretched thin across the region and nation,” the press release said.
The cause of the fire is unknown, according to the press release. In a Tuesday TDN story, Washington Department of Natural Resources spokesperson Thomas Kyle-Milward said firefighters suspect the fire was human-caused, though it is still under investigation.
Kyle-Milward previously told the Longview Daily News the fire is in an area of steep terrain that is difficult to survey and to access. It is the largest active wildfire in Southwest Washington by acreage, he said.