Washington Wildfire: A State of Emergency

Rapidly moving wildfires in Washington and Oregon, burning for the last week, have prompted the evacuation of several north-central towns over the last 24 hours, but as of yet no human casualties have been reported. The cause of the blaze has been attributed to both lightning and marijuana cultivation but the investigation continues even as firefighters struggle to control the spread.

Jacob McCann, a spokesman for the Carlton Complex wildfires, has said that the fire grew quickly under bad conditions yesterday and it is only now that local firefighters are better able to understand the size of the blaze. Covering an area of now more than 250 square miles, the wildfire is burning, among other places, along the Columbia River and U.S. Highway 97 in an area east of the Cascades.

Thrust forward by high winds, temperatures in the triple digits, and dry conditions, the Carlton Complex is a series of four wildfires in north-central Washington which has now destroyed more than 167,000 acres.

Some residents, evacuating the town of Twist, described the fire as “the cauldron of hell.”

The Associated Press reports that approximately 80-100 homes have been lost in the blaze, most of them in Okanogan County.

Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers issued a Level 3 evacuation notice yesterday to Pateros, a small town of about 650 residents on the Columbia River. Citizens fled southwest along U.S. Highway 97 and the river to Chelan as the blaze roared through businesses and homes. They were not the only ones leaving for safety. Eight miles away, in Brewster, patients from the local hospital were preemptively sent northeast to Omak. Brewster’s Red Cross evacuation center has also been closed.

Rogers, who has served in law enforcement for 30 years, claims he has never seen a wildfire this bad.

The fire jumped U.S. Highway 97 between Brewster and Pateros, burning the alpine terrain along the Columbia River. ABC News reports that two major power lines for the region have burned, bringing power outages to a wide area.

The wildfire’s fast movement prompted 300 residents of the Chiliwist Valley, 15 miles north of Pateros, to evacuate late last night. The fires have spread over Methow Valley, as well, devouring at least 28 square miles.

The Chiwaukum Creek Fire sends powdery ash everywhere over Leavenworth, a city in Chelan County which boasts Bavarian-style tourism. According to The Associated Press, the fire’s smoke plume hangs 25,000 feet in the air over the area and the wildfire itself has shut down 15 miles of U.S. Highway 2.

With 1,000 firefighters in the field but still unable to contain the wildfire which has spread in some places with zero containment, the governors of both Oregon and Washington have declared a state of emergency, allowing them to call on the National Guard for assistance. The National Guard in Washington has already sent in two helicopters and 14 personnel to help in combating the conflagration.

But the worst is not over. The current climate makes breaking this fire problematic.

Weather.com has reported that the temperatures across Washington are predicted to cool as the weekend approaches but that conditions will continue to produce a bad combination that makes the wildfire more dangerous as it spreads. Drought has already created several such fires over the last month in other states and they are notoriously difficult to stop.

Senior meteorologist Jon Erdman has stated that the problem is two-fold:

“One, winds will still be an issue, particularly in the afternoon and evening, at least through the weekend. Secondly, this is the driest time of year in the interior Northwest. Any chance of showers or thunderstorms will be small, and rainfall amounts isolated or light, with shifting winds and lightning strikes potentially fanning existing flames or starting new fires.”

[Image courtesy of www.oregonlive.com]