A spreading wildfire on the Colville Indian Reservation has led to evacuations and made air quality in the region among the worst in the nation, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
The Williams Flats fire had burned 40,000 acres and was 25% contained by Thursday evening. The fire grew significantly to the east and northeast on Wednesday as daytime temperatures in the Spokane area soared to 98 degrees — the highest so far this year — leading officials to order residents of about 13 homes to immediately evacuate at about 6 p.m. Residents of about 11 additional homes were told to be prepared to leave at a moment’s notice.
Fire spokesperson Shannon Dunfee said Wednesday they expected the blaze to grow as far east as the Columbia River on Wednesday night. It had come within half a mile of the river’s east bank by about 9:45 p.m. Wednesday.
Residents and campers in the area along the shoreline of Lake Roosevelt and the Columbia River were advised to be alert in case of evacuation. Natural-resource officers from the tribe were providing notice to campers in the area. The Inchelium Community Center is being used as an evacuation center.
“If you see fire approaching your area, do not wait to be told to leave,” fire officials said in a statement Wednesday night.
The about 900 people fighting the fire Wednesday night battled high temperatures, low humidity and steep, rocky terrain. The National Weather Service issued a heat advisory for the area.
The state Department of Ecology in Spokane and Yakima, the Colville Confederated Tribes, the Spokane Tribe, the Kalispel Indian Community and the Spokane Regional Clean Air Agency issued air-quality alerts for people who are particularly vulnerable. The EPA said air quality Wednesday was “unhealthy” for all in the Spokane area.
The weather pattern could begin to change Friday, with highs expected to be in the 80s and a chance of showers, according to the National Weather Service. The cooler and wetter weather should bring some improvement to air quality, but possible thunderstorms and lightning Friday through Saturday night increase the risk of other fires starting.
The Williams Flats fire started Friday after early morning thunderstorms brought lightning to the eastern portion of the reservation, igniting dry brush, grass and timber, according to InciWeb.
No structures had burned as of Wednesday night. Two firefighters were injured battling the blaze, and one has returned to the fire line, Marc Hollen, a spokesman for Northwest Interagency Incident Management Team 8, told The Spokesman-Review.
Hollen said the heat advisory that was in place for Spokane on Wednesday will remain on Thursday, with temperatures expected to stay in the upper 90s. Weather near the Williams Flats Fire is expected to shift but stay hot, he told the Spokane newspaper.
“The problem for tomorrow is our weather is changing and the winds are going to be moving around,” Hollen said Wednesday night. “And that can makes things not only hard to deal with but they also change what they do to a fire.”
He said that crews will face “the same kind of problem” on Friday and Saturday.
The National Weather Service is forecasting thunderstorms for Thursday and Friday, with south or southwest winds through the day and evening and gusts of about 15 mph.
As the storms develop, there may not initially be a lot of rain, but as they progress into late Friday and early Saturday, heavy rain is expected, with the potential for flash flooding, the weather service said.
Meteorologist Laurie Nisbet said it’s not clear whether the rain that comes will make a difference on the fire.
“This is a pretty big fire, and just a little rain somewhere along the way wouldn’t make much of an impact,” Nisbet said.
Information from The Spokesman-Review was included in this report.