Crews gaining ground on wildfires

SEATTLE — Thousands of firefighters are still battling five major wildfires in Eastern Washington that have burned a total of 186 square miles, but managers are increasingly confident they’re gaining control.

The state Emergency Operations Center is returning Thursday to normal status, spokesman Mark Clemens said. State mobilizations ended this week, leaving the major firefighting under the Department of Natural Resources.

“It seems like we’re getting a handle on the fires,” said department Communications Director Bryan Flint in Olympia. “If we continue to have increasing humidity levels and calm nights, it could continue to get better from here, but no one ever knows.”

Firefighters are still waiting for the annual pivot from the dry summer to the storms of fall and winter. There’s no forecast of significant rain through the weekend.

“Some of these fires will burn until the snow falls or until there’s heavy rain,” Flint said.

More than 4,000 firefighters remained on the lines Wednesday, according to information compiled by the state.

“Many have been out for weeks,” Flint said. “We’ve got a lot of tired firefighters on the line.

A few can start going home. The 103 Canadian firefighters who have been helping across the border are leaving this weekend, Flint said.

Most of the wildfires were started by a Sept. 8 lightning storm and spread through grass, sagebrush and trees in places. Unlike the Taylor Bridge Fire that burned nearly 100 structures in August near Ellensburg, the latest wildfires have caused little structure damage. No homes have been lost.

That’s largely thanks to the efforts of firefighters. Some parked fire engines at homes to beat back flames when the fires made their runs on the hottest, driest days and nights.

The biggest and most costly fire has been the Wenatchee Complex in Chelan County. It has burned 83 square miles and has 1,300 firefighters. Total costs so far are nearly $24 million. At one point the fire threatened 320 homes and structures with evacuation advisories for 600 people.

There are three levels of evacuation advisories corresponding to “ready, set, go,” but officials can’t force residents out of their homes.

The other big fire is the Table Mountain Fire between Cle Elum and Wenatchee. It has blacked 58 square miles and has about 1,100 firefighters. Its costs have exceeded $7 million. At one time 800 homes and structures were threatened and nearly 1,300 people were given evacuation advisories.

The three other large fires are the Okanogan Complex in Okanogan County, the Cascade Creek Fire on the western flank of Mount Adams in Skamania and Yakima counties, and the Goat Mountain Fire in Okanogan County.

Firefighters are increasing their containment percentages by strengthening fire lines and removing fuels with back-burning techniques.

At the Table Mountain Fire, firefighters are dropping flaming “ping pong balls” from helicopters to set fires in rugged areas, spokeswoman Juanita Wright in Ellensburg said Thursday.

The “aerial ignition” could continue through the weekend and burn out 3,000 to 4,000 acres with the help of ground crews, she said.

The firefighting could restrict traffic on Highway 97 where a pilot car escorted cars Wednesday near Blewett Pass, she said.

The hazy, smoky air is likely to linger over Eastern Washington for days and may drift into Western Washington, the state Ecology Department said. An air quality alert remains in effect for Eastern Washington through Friday.

Gov. Chris Gregoire extended a ban on all outdoor burning in Eastern Washington though Sunday.

Firefighters don’t need any more fires as the existing wildfires remain a risk until the weather changes.

“We could be back in the soup,” Clemens said. “The threat is not going away.”

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