RICHLAND, Wa. — A Richland homeless encampment with cook stoves, a fire pit, tents and chairs is where last week’s Yakima River delta fire started, say investigators.
Initially fire officials thought the dramatic wetlands fire along the Highway 240 causeway began near an animal crossing culvert under the roadway but have since ruled that out.
They now believe the blaze began at the encampment on the west side of the highway, Battalion Chief Randy Aust told the city council this week.
And the Columbia Point fire that erupted the next day at five different spots also was started by people — not by hot embers from the delta fire, he said.
Flames from the blazes dominated the Tri-Cities skyline for several nights and sent smoke over Highway 240 and Interstate 182, disrupting traffic.
Altogether, the fires blackened 230 acres of wildlands.
The fires are expected to continue smoldering for up to a month because of the thick vegetation and difficult access to the marshy areas.
Police and Richland fire investigators scoured the area in the days after the fire, processing the scene and collecting evidence, police Capt. Drew Florence told the Tri-City Herald in an email.
“The preliminary investigation indicates that both fires were human caused; however, we are still investigating the specific circumstances surrounding the ignition of each respective fire and a final report/determination has not been completed,” he said.
“Even though it was a significant event in our community, everything went really, really well,” Aust said about the firefighting efforts that involved 10 agencies, 30 firefighting vehicles and 60 firefighters.
Just one firefighter needed to be treated at Kadlec Regional Medical Center for dehydration and elevated carbon monoxide levels.
But Aust told the council the fires could signal the start of a bad fire year.
A dry spring combined with warming temperatures has left a lot of areas ready to burn.
“I do suspect that this year will be a challenging wildland season,” he said.
The bike/walking trail that parallels Highway 240 has been reopened after being closed after the fires. But people are still being asked to stay out of the burned areas where trees have been weakened and could be dangerous.
Yakima Delta fire
The first fire was spotted around noon last Wednesday, April 28, when someone saw a tree on fire just west of Highway 240, Aust said.
Firefighters initially had difficulty reaching it with one fire truck parked along the highway and another using an Army Corps of Engineers road.
“We jumped a significant amount of resources on it as soon as we could, and moments after we got our initial attack on the side of the highway, we noticed there was smoke on the east side of 240, as well,” Aust told the council.
Between the dry brush and erratic winds, firefighters had trouble getting ahead of the blaze, he said.
On the east side, firefighters were often knee-deep and sometimes even waist-deep in mud in the marsh.
“There was a large amount of dry fuels that were sitting on top of this wetland. It burned very, very rapidly,” he said.
Columbia Point fires
The next day, two large fires began to the north, across the mouth of the Yakima River, in a natural area with no roads on Columbia Point.
As firefighters worked their way out onto the point, three more fires cropped up. Aust said they all appeared to have started separately.
Some suspected hot embers from the delta fire ignited Columbia Point, but Aust said they no longer believe that’s true.
Fire officials saw several individuals leaving a wooded area on the point, including people using the area for recreation and some homeless people.
Aust told the council that because neither of the areas has had a fire for more than 20 years, the undergrowth and overgrowth of trees and brush made it a difficult control.
He said they are talking with officials with the Army Corps of Engineers, which owns the land and leases it to Richland, about thinning out some of the brush in that area.
“The fuel down low had started up and then it heats the trees above it,” Aust explained.
The fires also were fueled by steady winds and warm temperatures.
Anyone with information about people in the area at the time of the fire are being asked to email Detective Dustin Richman at email@example.com.