YAKIMA — Firefighters dug fire lines and lit backfires Wednesday in an effort to contain several large wildfires burning across 170 square miles of Eastern Washington after cooler weather overnight helped keep the lightning-sparked blazes from growing.
Meanwhile, fire managers worried about the potential for new fires west of the Cascades, where the National Weather Service issued a fire weather watch for the mountains’ west slopes and the Puget Sound basin Wednesday night and early Thursday. A red-flag warning for critical fire danger also was issued for southwest Washington, including Vancouver.
High temperatures combined with dry terrain — some areas haven’t seen rain for nearly two months — made for dangerous fire conditions statewide.
Earlier this week, high winds fanned seven large fire complexes in Eastern Washington, and more than 1,600 firefighters labored on those blazes Wednesday. Many more worked to contain dozens of small fires scattered across the eastern two-thirds of the state.
Smoke from the wildfires not only blanketed much of central and Eastern Washington, it drifted into parts of Western Washington, where alarmed residents were calling 911 on Wednesday, a state official said.
Dispatchers at 911 centers in five southwest Washington counties reported being inundated with false fire reports prompted by smoke from fires east of the Cascade Mountains, state Department of Natural Resources spokesman Bryan Flint said.
Easterly winds have been moving the smoke through the Columbia Gorge and across gaps in the Cascades, Flint said, adding that pattern is likely to continue over the next day or so.
Near Grand Coulee Dam in Eastern Washington, three homes and nine outbuildings were confirmed lost to two fires that have burned a combined 92,000 acres, or roughly 143 square miles, of grass and brush. The homes likely burned when high winds pushed the fire Monday evening, but firefighters were unable to begin assessing the damage until Tuesday, fire spokeswoman Karen Ripley said.
The fire was 20 percent contained Wednesday. About 185 firefighters were assigned to the blaze.
“All the crews are working on improving the containment lines and continuing to protect structures in the area,” Ripley said. “Most of the area is very light fuels — brush and dry grass, and it can’t get any drier — so with favorable winds, we should be able to get on top of it pretty quickly.”
Some homeowners just west of Wenatchee were allowed to return home Wednesday, but about 125 homes were still evacuated by a fire that had grown to more than 1,000 acres, Wenatchee police Sgt. John Kruse said. Residents of dozens of other homes were told to be ready to flee if the fire grows.
Another wildfire forced residents of 43 homes near Cashmere, about 6 miles west of Wenatchee, to leave. To the north, 19 homes were evacuated by a wildfire burning 5 miles north of Entiat.
More than 600 firefighters were assigned to the wildfires burning in north-central Washington alone.
Crews are stretched thin by the number of large fires, fire spokeswoman Connie Mehmel said, but firefighters are putting their best efforts into fires that could threaten people and property.
Mehmel also noted that though it’s late in the fire season, there still could be several weeks of burning before the area receives any significant rain or snow to dampen flames.
“While we know we will get a season-ending event in the foreseeable future, it still looks like it’s a little ways down the road,” she said.
And in southern Washington, nearly 500 firefighters were assigned to a wildfire burning in the Gifford-Pinchot National Forest south of Mount Adams, an area thick with dead timber from bug infestations. That fire was threatening no homes, but crews were working to keep it from blowing east into state and tribal timber lands.