Increased winds complicated firefighting efforts, while a huge swath of forests had to be closed.
Rising temperatures and increased winds complicated firefighting efforts Thursday in North Central Washington, while the high fire danger prompted the U.S. Forest Service to close a swath of forestlands north of Highway 2 and east of the Cascades crest.
The closure includes a major portion of the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest’s Wenatchee River Ranger District. The district totals approximately 696,000 acres and extends from near the city of Wenatchee and the Columbia River to the crest of the Cascades in the Glacier Peak and Alpine Lakes wilderness areas.
“This is not a decision that has been taken lightly,” District Ranger Jeff Rivera said in a written statement Thursday. “Our primary concern is for public and firefighter safety.”
The closure to public entry will be lifted as soon as the wildfire threat abates, but rainfall predicted for this weekend probably will not be enough to end that threat, he said.
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The forest closure includes all National Forest land in the Wenatchee River Ranger District north of Highway 2, except the district’s portions of the high-elevation Pacific Crest Trail.
The National Weather Service issued a red-flag warning for the Okanogan complex of fires, saying the weather conditions had the potential to spread the flames.
“The heat coming back on us early is going to be a problem,” said Rick Isaacson, fire information officer for the Okanogan complex fire that grew to 450 square miles on Thursday.
The blazes killed three firefighters last week and have burned at least 40 homes and 40 outbuildings.
Four firefighters were injured Wednesday while working on the Okanogan complex. Isaacson said a fifth firefighter was taken to the hospital for what he called a “medical injury.”
He did not know the medical issue or which hospital he was taken to.
The three others’ injuries were minor, he said, and firefighters returned to work shortly after being treated.
Isaacson said firefighters have been hampered by bees along with fire, particularly on the east side of the complex.
“There were lots of bee stings … but there’s no lost time with those,” he said.
He said crews were working to protect houses in the Aeneas Valley, east of the fires, which have flared up on recent afternoons.
Fire officials were less concerned Thursday about the North Star and Okanogan complex fires merging, Isaacson said.
“It’s not closing very fast toward the North Star. It’s looking very good to keep those apart,” he said.
The North Star fire grew about 4,000 acres since Wednesday, said Clifton Russell, a fire-information officer. Containment on the 270-square-mile blaze was about 22 percent Wednesday night, according to the government fire website InciWeb.
He said firefighters have been working to protect the town of Republic, Ferry County, by using controlled burns to create fire breaks and bulldozing fire lines. The fire remained more than 5 miles from town.
More than 1,150 square miles of Washington are on fire, nearly the size of Rhode Island, the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) said.
Gov. Jay Inslee visited North Central Washington on Thursday. He spoke in Chelan before traveling to meet firefighters on the lines.
“This is not just a local fire, it’s a statewide slow-motion disaster,” he said.
The governor met with about 20 members of the National Guard fighting a fire near Lake Chelan. They worked to protect about a half-dozen homes.
“Trying to predict what the fire is going to do is one of the hardest things,” guardsmen Casey Stockwell said.
Homeowner Jake Kneisley, 41, leaned against a car near his two-story home. Kneisley said he was up all night watching the fire.
“I feel incredibly lucky these people are here for us,” Kneisley said as firefighters worked nearby.
More wildfire updates
• A four-mile procession of honor will recognize the three firefighters killed last week, in tandem with their memorial service in Wenatchee on Sunday.
Richard Wheeler, 31, Andrew Zajac, 26, and Tom Zbyszewski, 20, died Aug. 19 in the Methow Valley’s Twisp River Fire.
Their fellow firefighter Daniel Lyon, 25, was severely burned in the incident and remains hospitalized.
Organizers said the procession will begin about 11:15 a.m. Sunday from a staging area at the Olds Station Big Lots parking lot and travel to Town Toyota Center, where the memorial will be held.
The procession will include fellow wildland firefighters and their vehicles, an event team member said.
The service is set to begin at 1 p.m.
• The DNR says it will close three volunteer intake offices on Thursday afternoon. The offices are in Omak, Colville and Castle Rock.
Thousands of people applied in the past week to help battle the wildfires.
The department says that among the applicants it found 315 heavy-equipment operators and identified more than 100 pieces of previously unregistered equipment that could be called upon if needed.