Firefighters Wednesday continued to battle new and existing blazes that threatened Washingtonians on both sides of the Cascade Mountains, as the state saw its first reported death of the fire season.
This week’s fires — coming as blazes also pummel California and Oregon — have prompted evacuations in several Washington counties. They have destroyed at least 121 homes, according to a spokesperson for the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
More damage could come. Fire conditions will remain dangerous in much of Western Washington through Thursday, along with reduced air quality.
Smoky air persisted in Seattle, and record-high temperatures were predicted for Wednesday and Thursday by the National Weather Service, with temperatures in the 90s in the warmest inland areas south of Olympia.
With the situation changing rapidly, officials Wednesday gave varying numbers for how much acreage has burned — but it continues to increase.
As of Wednesday morning, roughly 500,000 acres across Washington had been torched, according to DNR, about the same figure given Wednesday by the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center.
Earlier in the day, Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz put the figure at 587,000, and Gov. Jay Inslee said Wednesday afternoon that more than 480,000 acres were destroyed in just the last couple of days.
Inslee, Franz and fire officials pleaded for people to observe burn bans that are in effect and refrain from anything that could even cause a spark, from revving up a chain saw to target shooting or even starting a car on dry grass.
While this fire season has seen a big blowup in a short time, it hasn’t yet eclipsed the state’s historic fire season. Fires in 2015 scorched more than 1 million acres — and killed three firefighters in Okanogan County.
That region is again taking much of the punishment, including the death of a 1-year-old child, according to the Okanogan County Sheriff’s Office. The child died while he and his parents fled the Cold Springs fire.
The family’s abandoned and wrecked car was found Tuesday afternoon and had been burnt, according to the office. On Wednesday morning, search-and-rescue crews found the family — who are from Renton — along the riverbank of the Columbia River; the man, 31, and woman, 26, had third-degree burns and their son was dead.
The man and woman were taken to Three Rivers Hospital in Brewster and then flown to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. They were in critical condition at the hospital Wednesday afternoon, according to spokesperson Susan Gregg.
The Sheriff’s Office did not provide details on the boy’s cause of death.
“My heart breaks for the family of the child who perished in the Cold Springs fire,” said Franz, whose agency oversees DNR and the state’s wildfire-fighting teams, adding later: “The pain that family is going through is unfathomable.”
‘It was like a blowtorch’
Eastern Washington — with its hot, dry weather and expanse of open lands — is often the site of dangerous summer blazes. But the past few days have brought that threat home to Puget Sound.
Fires in Pierce County have been burning in Sumner, Graham and Bonney Lake and destroyed several homes, according to fire officials.
Meanwhile, a blaze ignited Tuesday in Thurston County. That fire, about 20 minutes’ drive south of Olympia, burned 290 acres as of Wednesday morning according to West Thurston Fire. It came close to several homes before being stopped.
In Pierce County, just after midnight Monday, a resident called 911 and reported a transformer had exploded in the 6500 block of Meyer Road, sparking what’s now called the Sumner Grade fire, said East Pierce County Fire Chief Bud Backer. It burned trees atop a ridge known locally as Eli Hill and now covers an estimated 800 acres. As of Wednesday afternoon, the fire was believed to be 20% contained, Backer said.
Driven by high winds, heat and low humidity, the fire jumped Highway 410 late Tuesday afternoon.
Backer was driving east on the highway, headed to check on his fire crews battling flames on the ridge, when that happened.
“It was like a blow torch. The heat was just incredible and the flames were horizontal to the road,” he said Wednesday in a gravel parking lot off 64th Street East in Sumner, the ridge behind him still smoldering. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”
Four homes were destroyed but there have been no injuries to firefighters or residents, Backer said. Since area fire departments are all battling the wildland fire, four mobile homes also burned in an unrelated fire due to the long response time by outside agencies providing mutual aid, said Backer.
Helicopters belonging to the Army National Guard and state Department of Natural Resources continued to dump water on the Sumner Grade fire through the day Wednesday.
Touring the damage Wednesday, Inslee said National Guard ground crews would be arriving to help exhausted firefighters dig fire lines in the steep, wooded terrain. The governor said he intends to sign a proclamation to provide cash assistance to people affected by the fires.
In Graham, where a blaze destroyed at least five homes, Darrell Herde on Wednesday surveyed the wreckage of his burnt house, garage and 1967 Chevrolet.
“Luckily I had my wallet in my pocket,” said Herde, a 70-year-old retired mill worker, who had to quickly evacuate. “Otherwise I wouldn’t be able to tell the guys in the government who I was.”
Herde plans to rebuild, saying, “I’ve got this place paid for, I’m not going to leave it.”
In King County, a fire has burned 150 acres of thick timber 6 miles east of Enumclaw, according to the Washington State Department of Natural Resources.
Highway 410 remains closed in both directions near Southeast Mud Mountain Road because of the fire and trees that fell over the road, the Washington State Department of Transportation said.
No homes or buildings are in the area that would be threatened by the fire.
Fires across the state
Across the state, fires started or continued throughout the day.
A new fire started in the Mount Adams Ranger District, north of the Trapper Creek Wilderness, where the Big Hollow fire is burning through timber. The fire is up to 10,000 acres and growing, according to Gaia Miller, acting public affairs officer for the Gifford Pinchot National Forest.
The Gifford Pinchot is developing closures to southwestern portions of the forest near Big Hollow fire, which started Tuesday. The closures will include developed campgrounds as well as dispersed camping, and all roads and trails in the area.
In the northern half of Eastern Washington, the Cold Springs and Pearl Hill fires near Omak on both sides of the Columbia River grew substantially, and hot and dry conditions persisted, stoking the blazes.
The Pearl Hill fire, east of Bridgeport in Okanogan County, has grown to 174,000 acres and was about 10% contained as of Wednesday morning. The southern portion is coming under control, but the northern portion remains very active in the area of Bridgeport, northeast of Mansfield and on steep areas along the Columbia River, according to Wayne Patterson, fire information officer with the Northwest Incident Management Team.
There are 47 fire engines, eight 20-person crews and 13 bulldozers deployed against the fire, along with three helicopters being used to dump water on the fire. So far, two structures have been lost, and no one has been injured.
The Cold Springs fire, south of Omak, has burned 163,000 acres and is uncontained, and its threat remains extreme. Multiple structures have been lost, and 110 residences are threatened. Highway 155 is closed from Omak to Nespelem, and Highway 97 remains closed between Omak and Brewster. About 200 firefighters are working on this fire. No injuries have been reported.
The Customs Road fire west of Curlew, Okanogan County, is 600 acres and is uncontained.
The Apple Acres fire northeast of Chelan in Chelan County has grown to about 6,300 acres and is 36% contained as of Wednesday afternoon. It remains very active, with spot fires crossing fire lines, Patterson said. The fire is burning grass, brush and timber, and threatening structures.
The Inchelium Complex is burning north of Inchelium in Ferry County on the Colville Indian Reservation, has grown to 8,000 acres and is threatening structures as it burns timber and brush.
The Manning Road fire north of Colfax in Whitman County is uncontained. It has burned 2,000 acres of grass, brush and timber.
The Beverly Burke Fire, southeast of Vantage in Kittitas County, has burned 920 acres and is 30% contained.
The Babb Fire northwest of Rosalia in Whitman County has grown to more than 8,000 acres of grass and brush. It is uncontained.
The Whitney Fire is burning northwest of Davenport and has grown to about 130,000 acres of grass and brush and is uncontained.
Franz said the state will remain in danger with hot, dry weather, and especially with strong winds that earlier in the week grounded firefighting helicopters.
“We will be in a severe fire danger situation for as long as there’s wind,” Franz said in an interview. “It could last longer, we can’t control the weather.”