Winds will continue to challenge firefighters across North Central Washington. President Obama has declared a state of emergency.
They’ve deployed all available personnel and equipment, called in the National Guard, obtained an emergency declaration from the president, even appealed to common citizens for help on the front lines.
But state officials managing the battle against a hellstorm of wildfires burning out of control across Washington are still awaiting the biggest boon:
A break in the weather.
“With big fires like this, the unfortunate truth is it takes a change in weather or terrain to stop them,” Washington Public Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark said Friday. “That’s really the best you can do.”
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Mother Nature refused to cooperate Friday, instead blasting strong winds with gusts of up to 60 miles per hour through the Okanogan Valley and other areas already under siege. In turn, several blazes already raging in North Central Washington burst beyond containment lines, racing toward several towns.
Evacuation orders remained in effect in at least six towns and several rural areas and thousands of homes continue to be endangered, as exhausted firefighters at the mercy of the winds largely settled into defensive postures on Friday.
“I’m not going to get someone hurt or killed protecting stuff,” Todd Pechota, an Okanogan fire incident commander, said during a briefing Friday.
Already, three firefighters have been killed and four others injured, untold numbers of homes have been consumed and hundreds of residents have been displaced as fires now rage across nearly a half-million acres of Washington timber- and rangelands.
With 490,000 acres in Washington having burned or now burning — an area larger in size than the cities of Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and Los Angeles combined — 2015 now marks the worst fire season in state history.
Last year’s total of 413,143 acres burned had been the previous record, according to the state Department of Natural Resources.
President Obama declared an emergency Friday in the state and has ordered federal aid to supplement state and local response efforts.
The president’s action, which authorizes the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to coordinate all disaster-relief efforts, means Washington will be eligible to recoup up to 75 percent of costs to respond to the wildfires.
The declaration also would provide direct assistance on the ground in affected communities — with food, debris removal, grief counselors and other resources, said Karina Shagren, a spokeswoman for the Washington Military Department.
With Washington now among the hardest hit of Western states dealing with unusually fierce wildfires this season, reinforcements are streaming in from other states.
Oregon, Colorado, Arizona, Wyoming and Minnesota are among states that have sent or are sending crews and equipment to help battle blazes here, officials said.
Along with the reinforcements, a respite from extreme winds could be coming, too.
Saturday promises to be calmer and cooler — a forecast that, should it come to pass, would be a godsend to drained fire crews.
“We just need a break in the weather,” Pechota said.
The raging fires northwest of Omak, which collectively nearly doubled in size Thursday night, represent the primary threat to people, officials said Friday.
“The situation in the Okanogan Valley is much more dire today,” Goldmark said. “We have gusts of 25 to 30 mph blowing and spreading the fires, which are now threatening Okanogan, Omak, even Republic.”
Known as the Okanogan complex fires, the four lightning-sparked blazes grew to a combined 161,663 acres when last surveyed late Thursday, but that number was quickly eclipsed Friday amid erratic winds.
An additional 40,000 acres were lost by early evening, Dan Dallas, head of Rocky Mountain Area Incident Management B, said at a public meeting in Pateros, Okanogan County. Some structures also burned, although Dallas didn’t provide a tally.
The blazes are threatening at least 5,100 homes, state DNR officials reported.
“We have a tremendous amount of open fire edge on all of these fires and the wind is wanting to move it,” Pechota, the incident commander, said Friday. “That’s our biggest challenge.”
The fires are about 38 percent contained, but officials expected that number to fall as winds pushed the blazes southward.
Wind direction also has been shifting rapidly, sometimes by 360 degrees in a matter of minutes, said Todd Magliocca, of the Okanogan County emergency operations center.
That can create extremely dangerous conditions for firefighters, and Pechota said he may have to sacrifice structures for safety.
Meantime, high winds also are grounding aircraft.
“The challenge is during periods of high winds you’re very limited,” Goldmark said Friday. “The wind is going to get to the point today we can’t even use aircraft. We couldn’t use aircraft the past couple days in the Omak area, because of the poor visibility from smoke.”
The Okanogan fires “are all kind of bleeding together at this point, and threatening (the town of) Okanogan pretty seriously and Omak, too,” Goldmark added.
By midday Friday, at least one of the blazes, called the Tunk Block fire, had crossed Highway 20 north of Riverside, racing toward the rurally populated Aeneas Valley and the town of Republic beyond it. Emergency officials issued the highest level of evacuation orders to homes in the area.
Amid the gusts, fire crews throughout Okanogan County took on a defensive posture Friday, working to protect generators, power lines and structures, said Dan Omdal, a spokesman for the fire’s incident management team.
“There’s a time to directly attack the flaming front … there’s a time when situations are extreme, like right now,” he said. “You fortify your anchor and you flank the edges of the fire and focus on safety.”
Evacuation orders remained in effect for the towns of Twisp, Winthrop, Conconully, Riverside and parts of Omak, officials said, and new evacuations were being called for in Okanogan and various rural areas, officials said.
Omdal said communities need to take evacuation notices seriously.
“It’s important for citizens to comply and be aware and be sensitive,” Omdal said. “This is an emergency. It doesn’t happen all the time.”
Official tallies of structures lost remain in the mid-30s, but fire authorities have acknowledged that the counts have not kept pace with realities: Likely dozens more homes have been devoured, they said.
One bright spot in the Okanogan County blazes on Friday: The Twisp River fire didn’t experience the rapid growth overnight Thursday that other fires did, Goldmark said.
Three U.S. Forest Service firefighters died in the blaze that erupted Wednesday afternoon and four others were injured. Tom Zbyszewski, 20; Andrew Zajac, 26; and Richard Wheeler, 31, were killed.
Their deaths have prompted at least five investigations, including a major inquiry and safety review by a panel appointed by the chief ranger. It will be directed by John Phipps, director of the U.S. Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station in Fort Collins, Colo.
Phipps said it will include experts in fire behavior, meteorology, wildfire management, safety and human performance and will eventually make recommendations and suggest policy or protocol changes to the Forest Service based on its findings. That process could take several months, he said.
Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers said few new details of the incident were available. The three dead firefighters, he said, were found outside a firetruck that had been in an accident; they had been overtaken by the fire. He said there may have been a second vehicle in the area that managed to escape the flames.
The Twisp River fire, also known as the Branch 3 blaze, remains burning on the outskirts of Twisp and Winthrop.
It blew up to about 8,000 acres, but its sized has since leveled out.
“They didn’t get the winds,” Goldmark said Friday. “That was helpful.”
In neighboring Ferry County, a blaze near Nespelem known as the North Star fire exploded overnight Thursday to about 88,000 acres on the Colville Indian Reservation and threatened more than 2,000 homes.
“It’s spreading fairly rapidly toward the town of Republic,” Goldmark said. “We’re trying to put a line around the town now.”
The Chelan complex fires grew by Friday morning to a combined 134,602 acres, fire information officer Wayne Patterson said.
More than 1,000 firefighters are working on four fires now, as several blazes merged Thursday.
Officials overseeing the battle in Chelan County said strong winds seen in the past few hours proved to be less dangerous than feared, and more resources became available for the effort.
“We had a lot of good work that happened last night in spite of the winds we had endured,” said Clay Templin, head of Southwest Area Incident Management Team 1, in a news conference with reporters. “We did not have the growth we expected.”
Cooler weather is expected to prevail on Saturday.
Templin said firefighters have made advances in a fire near Pateros, north of Chelan. “Guys made very good progress over there,” Templin said.
Templin said the incident command in Chelan was working closely with the officials fighting the fires at the Okanogan complex to the north, and were trying to assist wherever possible. He also said that more firefighting resources might become available as fires in Chelan and elsewhere come under control.
“We’re optimistic we’re going to get some other resources,” he said.
Rich Magnussen, an emergency management specialist for Chelan County, said about 1,000 people were subject to Level 3 evacuations — the highest level — and 354 others were given Level 2 notices, in which they’re expected to be ready to leave at a moment’s notice.