County firefighters sent to help near Leavenworth, Twisp

  • Thu Jul 17th, 2014 4:55pm
  • News

Herald staff and Associated Press

Eastern Washington wildfires caused the closure of U.S. 2 between Stevens Pass and Leavenworth on Thursday.

Eight Snohomish County fire agencies sent crews to two of the blazes, said Eric Andrews, the state fire mobilization coordinator for the northwest region, which includes Snohomish County.

Teams were called to fight what’s known as the Chiwaukum Creek fire, which led to closure of 35 miles of U.S. 2 near Leavenworth, and a fire in the Methow Valley of Okanogan County.

“Crews are reporting erratic fire behavior,” said Andrews, who also is assistant fire chief for Snohomish County Fire District 7 and chief in Gold Bar. “There’s some potentially fast-moving fire.”

Near Leavenworth, residents of 860 homes have been told they should leave immediately. Another 800 homes were less seriously threatened. Authorities said Thursday that the blaze had grown to more than 10 square miles. It was first detected Tuesday.

One of the regional teams was dispatched to the Chiwaukum blaze west of Leavenworth. A team includes five fire engines, a large truck that carries water, 18 firefighters and a leader.

The other three regional teams are fighting an Okanogan County fire near Twisp.

High temperatures, low humidity and winds have created a perfect storm, Andrews said.

The National Weather Service issued a red flag warning on Tuesday. That’s the most serious warning about dry and windy conditions ideal for wildfires, which can grow at an explosive rate. Andrews expects the warning to continue today.

“It causes very hazardous conditions for crews,” he said. “Those conditions are pretty dramatic and dangerous.”

Some firefighters have retreated to safety zones, Andrews said.

Firefighters from other areas of the state also are assisting at the wildfires. Snohomish County, Andrews said, has no more resources to send.

“Having those resources gone has made us as lean as we can go,” Andrews said. “We’re just hoping we don’t have any more wildfires.”

In the U.S. 2 town of Sultan, business and traffic had slowed significantly with the highway closure on Thursday.

Marlys Bowles, a waitress at the Sultan Bakery, said she’d seen a drop in business since Wednesday.

“It’s definitely slower than normal,” she said. “Today’s not average at all.” She hadn’t seen many out-of-town travelers.

Kathryne Paz, owner of Sultan’s Galaxy Chocolates, said she usually has some 30 customers per day who stop while traveling U.S. 2. By Thursday afternoon, she’d had only had two.

“It’s almost like there’s no reason to be here at all,” she said. “The fires are not good.”

The Chiwaukum blaze’s smoke plume was visible for miles on Wednesday, rising 25,000 feet into the air.

Shelley Pedigo Boy of Everett, whose family owns a cabin near the town of Plain, heard that U.S 2 was closed at Stevens Pass but went anyway. She and her mother, Jean Pedigo, talked their way past a Washington State Patrol roadblock. Boy wanted to retrieve family heirlooms, such as quilts, an antique frying pan and photos.

“Our whole childhood was there,” she said. “We have 50 years of photos.”

“What scares me the most is the fire isn’t contained yet,” Boy said.

The cause of blaze is under investigation, officials said.

About 1,000 firefighters were on the lines at the Chiwaukum Creek fire, the Stokes fire and the Mills Canyon blaze near Entiat, just north of Wenatchee.

Worsening wildfire activity prompted the governor’s office to declare a state of emergency, a move that allows state officials to call up the National Guard.

Amy Nile: 425-339-3192; anile@heraldnet.com.