Some 1,000 people were ordered out of Chelan as fires surrounding the town merged, and 400 people are being pushed from their homes near Oroville, Okanogan County, by a fire sparked by a plane crash that killed two.
Under erratic winds and stormy conditions, several fires merged Friday in Chelan County to create a massive blaze that forced more than 1,000 people to evacuate the area and threatened hundreds of homes and businesses.
It’s just one of many areas statewide where mostly lightning-caused blazes are destroying property, forcing thousands to flee for safety and stretching Washington’s wildfire-fighting resources thin.
About 1,600 firefighters were battling at least nine large blazes, and as windy and stormy conditions proved ideal for the fires to grow, management teams were restructuring their operations to free up firefighters to tackle new blazes.
“We have no air resources because they are detained at other fires,” said Amy Rooker, of the Ferry County Sheriff’s Office, which is helping contain a 20,000-acre fire that started from lightning Tuesday.
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Mary Verner of the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) said Friday afternoon that there were more than 1,200 active fire reports in the northeastern part of Washington, ranging from “little smokes and lightning starts, spot fires” to large fires.
The federal government said wildfires have reached such an extreme level that the Forest Service will exhaust its firefighting budget next week and will again have to tap into other programs for more money.
“We have a record drought year, record temperatures, lower relative humidity and gusty and erratic winds with dry lightning last night. You can’t get much worse than that,” said Franklin Pemberton, public information officer for the Colville National Forest.”
At least three fires merged into one “complex” fire that progressed to wrap around Lake Chelan’s southern end, threatening hundreds of homes and causing a major power outage, said Rich Magnussen, a spokesman for the Chelan sheriff’s office.
The number of people under Level 3 evacuations (leave immediately) was more than 1,000 as of Friday evening, and he said more people will likely be asked to leave.
Magnussen said fire officials will not know the size of the fire, nor the number of structures it’s threatening, until Saturday. Crews were busy working to safely evacuate assisted-living facilities and restore power to damaged power lines.
Chaos in Chelan and elsewhere erupted overnight because of about 300 strikes recorded from about 10 p.m. to 10 a.m. Friday in Washington and the Idaho Panhandle as unstable air moved through the region, said Bob Tobin, a National Weather Service meteorologist.
Firefighters battling at least nine large blazes
Active fire reports in state’s northeast
Fires started on DNR-protected lands as of Aug. 11
Dave Helvey of Chelan County Sheriff’s Office said firefighters during the day Friday were protecting structures and dropping water from helicopters for what was called the Antoine Creek fire; and at least one plane arrived to help quell what was called the Chelan Butte fire. Both fires, along with Deer Mountain fire, are believed to have merged into the Chelan County superfire.
More than 400 people near Oroville, Okanogan County, were evacuated Friday from a growing blaze that started from a fatal small-plane crash.
A Cessna 182 heading from Oroville to Spokane with two people aboard crashed and sparked a fire that spread to the Canadian border. Crews responding to the blaze discovered the wreckage Thursday and a body inside the aircraft. Investigators found a second body Friday, according to National Transportation Safety Board spokesman Peter Knudson.
Fire officials were watching about 50 structures, both residential and commercial, potentially threatened by the Nine Mile blaze.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) authorized federal funds to help fight the fire near Oroville. DNR has also called on the National Guard to help.
Other wildfires and aid
Ferry County: The sheriff’s office called for evacuations from the 20,000-acre blaze known as the Stickpin fire. Several main roadways have been closed.
Franklin Pemberton, the public information officer for the Colville National Forest, said the fire was moving rapidly from treetop to treetop. He said the fire was feasting on dead pine in steep terrain that makes access difficult for firefighters.
Yakima County area: The Cougar Creek fire was ignited by lightning on Monday. The initial attack by local resources was unable to stop the fire from spreading rapidly, according to InciWeb, the clearinghouse for information about the fires. The fire, at 21,800 acres, is about 6 miles northwest of Glenwood, Klickitat County.
Chelan County: The Wolverine fire grew to about 59 square miles (37,792 acres) by Friday morning. Crews set up a fuel break system round the village, which fire spokesman Brian Lewatch said is continuing to hold the blaze from invading Holden Village, a Lutheran retreat near Lake Chelan that is threatened by the fire.
He said resources from the massive lightning-caused blaze that started more than a month ago have been shifted to aid some of Friday’s new fires.
“We got our hands tied,” Lewatch said.
Aid: Red Cross shelters were established in North Central Washington, one at the Entiat Valley Community Resource Center in Entiat, Chelan County and one at Republic High School in Republic, Ferry County. Another was set up at Oroville High School in Oroville Friday that was moved to Brewster High School.
Washington and Oregon are now at the most severe level on a national wildfire preparedness designation, according to the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center (NWCC), which manages interagency firefighting.
Known as Level 5, it means that both states have large wildfires burning that could use up all available existing firefighting resources.
And with states like California, Idaho and Montana also competing for fire engines, crews and other resources, and there won’t be new short-term help on the way, said Carol Connolly, public information officer for NWCC.
“The resources we have are what we’re going to get,” she said, adding later: “Any new fire is pulling firefighters away from other fires.”
And this year’s Paradise Fire on the Olympic Peninsula and other blazes in Western Washington are keeping crews and resources tied up that might have gone east of the Cascades, according to Verner.
As of Tuesday, 751 fires have started on DNR-protected lands, a 33 percent increase over the 565 fires recorded by the same point last year, according to the DNR.
About 84 percent of those fires started this year were caused by people, from activities like shooting targets and dumping out charcoal from fires, according to Sandra Kaiser, spokeswoman for the DNR.
“It’s really making the season much more difficult,” she said.