Several hundred residents of Grant County were advised to evacuate Tuesday because of a fast-moving wildfire that started late Monday evening and grew to more than 5,000 acres by noon the next day, according to the Grant County Sheriff’s Office.
Whipped by wind and fueled with dry grass and sage, the fire on the east side of the Columbia River grew 1,000 acres in just a few hours early Tuesday, according to the sheriff’s office.
“This one is big,” said Derek Gregg, the chief deputy of emergency management for the Grant County Sheriff’s Office. “This is not the way you want to start out the fire season.”
Officials don’t believe the fire will be contained within the next few days, even though air crews were dousing the blaze with water on Tuesday and two 20-person hot-shot teams were expected, Gregg said Tuesday morning.
This is the first fire in Grant County this year to spark a state mobilization response, Gregg said.
The two original spots in what is being called the 243 Fire were at Lower Crab Creek Road, which is closed, and Road 15 Southwest, where some of the first evacuations were ordered, according to the sheriff’s office.
But the fire’s location changed over the course of the day as the wind “kept pushing it in different directions,” said Gregg.
About 50 households have so far been told to evacuate immediately, said Gregg. A shelter was set up at Royal City Intermediate School, and large animals were being sheltered at the Grant County Fairgrounds.
Mandatory Level 3 evacuation notices — which mean leave immediately — were issued to some residents of Beverly Burke Road between Highway 26 and Highway 243 on Monday night, according to the sheriff’s office. On Tuesday morning, mandatory evacuations were issued for residents of the small community of Smyrna, about 13 miles east of Beverly along Road 17 Southwest.
A Level 2 evacuation notice — which means to be ready to leave at a moment’s notice — is in place for residents of Beverly, Schawana and Wanapum Village.
Justin Bishop, a dispatcher at the Washington Department of Natural Resources Central Washington Interagency Communications Center, said the fire began at about 11 p.m. Monday south of Wanapum and quickly spread to the east, moving south of Highway 26.
The fire caused some power outages, and the sheriff’s office directed those affected to follow @GrantPUD on Twitter for information on when power will be restored rather than calling 911. Grant Public Utilities District expected to have power restored by Tuesday night.
Six fire agencies were on the scene Tuesday, and firefighters dispatched by the state arrived throughout Tuesday, according to the sheriff’s office. The state’s Type 3 incident management team also arrived Tuesday and assumed command.
Highway 243 is open for traffic, but officials are asking people to watch for firefighters and law enforcement in the area.
On its Facebook page, the sheriff’s office wrote, “Just so everyone knows, state-mobilized firefighters come equipped with plenty of drinking water, food, clothing, etc. They won’t need any donated materials, but would be grateful if you said ‘thanks.’ They appreciate it!”
The sheriff’s office said it cannot accept donated money or items, but that people wishing to help fire-affected residents should contact the American Red Cross.
“With snowpack under half of normal and a hot, dry summer ahead, we’re looking at another record-setting fire season,” said Hilary Franz, the state commissioner of public lands. “We had a wet winter that made grasses grow thick and tall. Now, a dry spring has turned these grasses into fuel for wildfires like we see today.”
Franz also said wildfires are worsening around the region and the fire season is getting longer.
“It’s a stark reminder that Washington needs to be prepared to fight fires without the assistance of other states or regional partners,” she said. “We need to be investing now in a 21st-century wildfire team to keep our communities safe.”
For more information on preventing wildfires, see the state Department of Natural Resources’ tip page.