Washington wildfires down but not out

YAKIMA — Although the smoke is clearing from two large wildfires in Kittitas County, firefighters will be dealing with the fires for weeks to come. A few will monitor it for months, since forest fires are likely to smolder on until the first snows fall.

The 12,667-acre Snag Canyon Fire barely grew last week, thanks in part to cool, wet weather, and containment stands at 76 percent. To the west, the 894-acre South Cle Elum Ridge Fire is considered 77 percent contained.

That might sound like the work is almost done, but it’s not. Slightly more than 1,000 people continue to work on the two fires.

“Even once we have 100 percent containment, that doesn’t mean the fire is out,” said Don Jaques, spokesman for the fire management team.

Containment measures the secure lines firefighters build to stop the fire’s advances and become buffer zones of blackened ground in which everything that could burn has already done so.

But large fires like the Snag Canyon Fire often continue to burn deep inside that perimeter until the first heavy snows finally extinguish every flame.

Before that snow or a heavy fall rain arrives, local firefighters will continue to keep an eye on the fire, Kittitas Valley fire Chief John Sinclair said.

The firefighters on the two fires are part of a Type 1 Incident Management Team — the country’s top tier wildfire management with the most experience and the most resources. Once they believe the fires’ perimeters are secure, they’ll go home or on to the next fire and hand these two back to local firefighters, Jaques said.

“The team typically buttons these things up pretty good. When they hand it back to the locals, they have done significant work,” Sinclair said. “But they are not mopping up the entirety of the fire footprint, so deep in the interior you are still going to have fire.”

Unlike a clear cut, wildfires rarely burn through every tree or bush in their path. Pushed by wind and terrain, the flames can skip around, leaving green clumps of survivors on a largely blackened landscape.

“People get an idea in their mind that everything has burned, that it’s a moonscape, but that’s not the case,” Jaques said.

These surviving patches provide the fuel that keeps the fire burning long after the firefighters go home.

“You just have to let nature consume the fuel when it’s in the interior, and it’ll do that until the snow flies,” Sinclair said.

Within the interior, small teams of firefighters will patrol, looking for still-smoldering stumps or trees that could flare back up. Handheld heat-detecting devices can help them identify these hot spots.

Known as mop-up work, they extinguish flames by dumping water or digging up stumps and burying them, said Janet Pearce, spokeswoman for the state Department of Natural Resources.

Both fires were started by lightning strikes. The Snag Canyon Fire began Aug. 2; the Cle Elum Ridge Fire began five days later.

To date, it has cost $12.4 million to fight the Snag Canyon Fire and $4.6 million has been spent on the South Cle Elum Ridge Fire. Final costs will depend on how long fire crews will need to stay in the field.

How long crews spend mopping up and patrolling varies, depending on the fire size and terrain.

Once all that work is done, Sinclair said, the local fire district will continue to check on the southern perimeter to protect the homes along the fire’s border.

It’s a small part of their job and budget, he said, but one they have lots of experience with after several large fires have burned in Kittitas County in recent years. Flare-ups near the perimeter are rare, Sinclair added, but they’d rather be safe then sorry.

“Say we’ve got a wind event, we’ll go out and check that we’re not getting any kind of embers that are going to blow across the line,” Sinclair said.

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