Officials have determined a wildfire on the Hanford Reach National Monument that burned an estimated 42,000 acres was caused by humans, but the circumstances remain under investigation.
The blaze, known as the Cold Creek Fire, is now 80 percent contained and crews are in mop-up mode, said Captain Ron Fryer of Benton County Fire Protection District 1. The cost to fight the fire is an estimated $550,000, not including money spent on aircraft, Fryer said.
Nearly 300 firefighters have been battling the widlfire, since it began Thursday afternoon near Highway 24 in Benton County just east of the Yakima County line. Fryer said crews still expect to have the fire completely contained by Sunday, unless unforeseen wind gets in the way.
Conditions look favorable, though, and Fryer said he expected to have the fire contained well before temperatures reach triple-digits in the middle of next week.
The fire does not pose a danger to the public, the Washington state Department of Ecology’s Nuclear Waste Program — the agency responsible for oversight of federal environmental cleanup at the Hanford nuclear site — tweeted just before 8:15 a.m. Friday. No structures are known to have been damaged, and no injuries have been reported, Benton County Fire Protection District 2 spokesperson Jack Derderian told reporters Friday morning.
On-site operations at Hanford are not affected, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, which manages the site.
The fire started as two small fires that broke out Thursday afternoon, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It had spread over 1,000 acres by 4 p.m. Thursday and grew to 8,000 acres just two hours later, according to the Department of Natural Resources.
The fire was burning through wildland west of Highway 240 on a portion of the monument closed to the public, the Arid Lands Ecology Reserve, or ALE, which includes Rattlesnake Mountain.
The ALE Reserve includes the original security zone around the production portion of the Hanford nuclear reservation, which is on the east side of Highway 240.
Firefighters from Hanford, Benton County, Bureau of Land Management, Oregon and U.S. Fish and Wildlife were battling high winds Thursday evening. At 11:44 p.m. Thursday, Benton County Fire Protection District 2 posted on Facebook that the fire was still burning on the north slope of the mountain, and that they would try Friday to burn the top of the mountain to deprive the fire of its fuel source, assuming conditions did not change before then.
“The winds are supposed to die down overnight and remain calm,” the agency wrote in the post, “so we feel that we can be successful in the morning.”
Derderian told reporters Friday morning that conditions seemed more favorable. “We hope to get a better handle on it, and if the wind doesn’t work against us, we should be in much better shape this afternoon,” he said. “… We look forward to wrapping this thing up soon and getting home.”
Highway 24 was also closed between Highway 240 and the Silver Dollar Cafe.
The fire jumped the highway to the main portion of Hanford at one point, but was quickly put out there, according to Hanford officials.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages ALE, said three helicopters were at the fire at about 5:30 p.m. Thursday and three heavy air tankers were en route.
Bulldozers were at the fire but were being used only on existing roads to protect the reserve’s habitat as much as possible. Most of the reserve’s land has been largely untouched by humans since it was taken over as a Hanford security perimeter during World War II.
The fire closed Highway 240 from the Hanford Gate to State Route 225 on Thursday, according to the state Department of Transportation. The Benton County Sheriff’s Office announced early Friday that the highway had been reopened.
The highway closures meant most Hanford nuclear reservation workers had to leave the site late Thursday afternoon at the Wye Barricade near Richland.
Higher-than-normal wildfire risk is forecast for the entire West Coast through September, according to the Bureau of Land Management.
Information from the Tri-City Herald included in this report.