Inslee declares emergency in 20 counties due to wildfires

By Nicholas K. Geranios, Associated Press

SPOKANE — Several wildfires continued to burn in Eastern Washington on Tuesday and Gov. Jay Inslee declared a state of emergency for 20 counties.

Firefighters appeared to be gaining the upper hand against wildfires burning in the Spokane region, although heavy smoke blanketed the state’s second-largest city.

Inslee visited a fire command center on the Spokane County Fairgrounds on Tuesday morning, and blamed tree diseases and rising temperatures caused by climate change for the state’s recent spate of record wildfire seasons.

Inslee says diseased trees and climate change have created “explosive conditions” in forests.

“Our forests and wild lands are under attack from climate change,” Inslee said.

In his emergency proclamation, Inslee noted hot and windy weather conditions were forecast for the next seven days. He said a lack of resources could hamper firefighting efforts.

Inslee’s proclamation directed state agencies to do everything reasonably possible to assist local governments in responding to and recovering from the fires. It also called for staff at the State Emergency Operations Center to coordinate state firefighting efforts, and allowed the use of the Washington National Guard if needed.

“This proclamation frees up state resources so we can provide the assistance that these communities might need,” Inslee said.

The proclamation covers Adams, Asotin, Benton, Chelan, Columbia, Douglas, Ferry, Franklin, Garfield, Grant, Kittitas, Klickitat, Lincoln, Okanogan, Pend Oreille, Spokane, Stevens, Yakima, Walla Walla and Whitman counties.

The previous two years saw the most wildfires in state history. This year has been relatively mild by comparison.

But temperatures in the 90s and high winds last weekend sparked fires across Eastern Washington. In the Spokane area, wildfires burned more than a dozen homes and forced thousands of people to evacuate.

The air quality in Spokane was ruled unhealthy for everyone on Tuesday morning.

The Spokane Regional Clean Air Agency said the city’s air quality was at 172 on its 500-point index. The air becomes “very unhealthy” at 200.

The air quality should improve Wednesday, the agency said.

Fire crews have partially contained a 300-acre fire in north Spokane, which has burned several homes. But the six-square-mile Yale Road fire near Valleyford, a few miles south of Spokane, flared up Monday.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has authorized emergency funding for those two blazes.

In Lincoln and Stevens counties, the Hart fire has burned some 15 square miles and destroyed numerous homes on the Spokane Indian Reservation.

In central Washington, a large fire that started on Highway 260 near Connell moved east toward Kahlotus, where it threatened homes and forced some residents to evacuate. The Kahlotus blaze is estimated to be more than 34 square miles, mostly sageland.

The town remained without power, phone service or cellphone services, officials said.

No homes were lost, but a hay barn was destroyed, said Franklin County Emergency Management officials.

A wildfire burning south of Toppenish has grown to nearly 11 square miles but is 50 percent contained and weather conditions were aiding firefighters. About a dozen homes were threatened by the fire, officials said.

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