YAKIMA, Wash. -- There's no relief in sight for firefighters battling several large wildfires in Washington state, and a lightning storm forecast to sweep through the region Saturday could ignite even more blazes and bring little to no rain.
Some forest land in the fire's path hasn't burned in decades, and trees have been killed or removed of their foliage by outbreaks of mountain pine beetle and Western spruce budworm, fire spokeswoman Connie Mehmel said. The fires are burning on 143 square miles of parched forest, brush and grass.
Several fires have already burned together to create one blaze covering nearly 47 square miles, and the fire was threatening to merge with another large blaze southwest of Wenatchee. U.S. Highway 97 was closed over Blewett Pass as firefighters worked to burn dry fuel and take down dead trees
"We're not trying to get them to burn together, but it just isn't realistic to keep them from stopping," Mehmel said. "In some ways, we can more easily manage these fires if they burn together with just one perimeter."
On Friday, crews were just working to secure lines in case the coming storm brings high winds, she said.
"And if we get new starts, we'll have to deal with them as they arrive," Mehmel said.
A lightning storm forecast to sweep through the region Saturday could ignite even more blazes and bring little to no rain. Saturday's storm could bring lightning to western Washington and up and down the Cascade Range, with the hardest hit area likely to be the central region, National Weather Service meteorologist Steven Van Horn said.
Rex Reed, the incident commander leading the fire-fighting effort, said Friday that it is unprecedented for a red flag warning or red flag watch to be in effect in Washington this time of year. Typically, lightning months are late July through mid-to-late August.
The Table Mountain Fire, which has a 40-mile perimeter, is only five percent contained and the growth potential is considered extreme. The Wenatchee Complex is 24 percent contained.
Learn how a smoke column can create its own lightning.
About 600 homes are threatened and many are under a Level 3 evacuation, meaning residents are urged to leave and nobody is being allowed back into the area. No homes have been lost to the Table Mountain Fire. Firefighters are burning a perimeter around the homes to eliminate the fuel that could cause the wildfire to consume them.
“We’re just going to continue working on the fire lines, trying to secure that and make sure it’s really tight. We’re looking at some fire to come down some of the canyons at a slow pace so we’re going to try to make sure to keep control of that,” said Tim Perciful, firefighter spokesman.
Smoke from the fires is pouring across Eastern Washington, obscuring the air 200 miles away in Spokane. State officials have warned of hazardous air quality in Ellensburg and Wenatchee from the thick smoke. They are advising residents to stay indoors, limit physical activity and keep doors and windows closed.
State health officials sent more than 20,000 respirator masks to the region in anticipation of possible shortages.
The Wenatchee World reports the Red Cross has opened a free smoke relief center at the 7th Day Adventist Church at Fifth Street and Western Avenue in Wenatchee.
Bonaventure Senior Living will have two smoke relief centers for people 65 and older starting Friday, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.:
- Bonaventure of East Wenatchee, 50 29th Street NW
- Columbia Heights Senior Living, 1550 Cherry Street, Wenatchee
Free N95 masks, which are recommended for dealing with the smoke, are being made available at McGlinn’s Public House, 111 Orondo in Wenatchee, according to the Wenatchee World.
Air-quality monitors in Chelan County are reading in the hazardous and unhealthy ranges, the agency said. Conditions are getting worse in the Quincy area, and conditions could worsen around Spokane, Pullman and Clarkston.
Central Washington University moved its Saturday football game against Azusa Pacific University from Ellensburg to Bothell, in what would have been the school's home opener. A Friday night high school game between Wenatchee and Eastmont also was moved to Moses Lake.
An emergency animal shelter has been opened at the Chelan County Fairgrounds for large domestic animals. Small animals may be sheltered at the Countryside Veterinary Clinic, 405 Ohme Road.
Wenatchee Complex updates
KING 5's Glenn Farley and Lindsay Chamberlain compiled this report.