Hundreds of firefighters from the ground and in the air have managed to contain 25 percent of a wildfire raging in central Washington.
The crews had hoped to contain much of the fire by Wednesday evening due to increasingly problematic weather conditions later in the week. Extreme heat is expected Thursday and Friday, along with a lightning event in the forecast this weekend.
The fire near Cle Elum has burned dozens of homes and caused about 900 people to evacuate. Fire spokesman Glenn Kohler says officials ordered more evacuations late Wednesday on the Taylor Bridge Fire’s north flank. He didn’t know how many people were affected. Hundreds have left their homes. Incident commander Rex Reed
The Taylor Bridge fire has destroyed at least 70 homes and burned across more than 22,000 acres on the east slope of the Cascades in the Cle Elum area. Officials estimate even more homes have been burned, but conditions have made it too difficult to get an accurate count.
The governor declared a state of emergency in Kittitas and Yakima counties while the Taylor Bridge Fire continues to move across the Cle Elum area and destroy homes. The governor’s declaration made Washington National Guard helicopter support possible.
“We’re at 800 people assigned to this fire now, so we should have a good day,” incident commander Rex Reed said of efforts to battle the Taylor Bridge fire, which has scorched 22,000 acres, more than 34 square miles.
KIRO Radio reporter Chris Sullivan had the opportunity to ride along with a Department of National Resources spokesperson. Watching as firefighters tried to save a neighborhood, Sullivan called their effort “Herculean.”
Helicopters made regular drops of water on hot spots. Firefighters dug lines with hand tools and bulldozers and cleared wood piles and dry brush from around homes to protect them.
And at the fire’s troublesome north flank, where massive plumes of smoke soared skyward, heavy tankers repeatedly dropped retardant on thick stands of ponderosa pine and Douglas fir _ some of the heavy timber fire crews had hoped to keep the fire from reaching.
Retirees Dave and Jan Stambaugh eyed the massive fire behind their home warily Wednesday, as they loaded treasured artwork into their cars.
“It’s one thing about the house, but my yard, oh my garden,” Stambaugh said, pointing to her lush new landscaping with ponds, shrubs, stepping stones and a putting green. “Do you think it’ll make it?”
Next door, 81-year-old Joanne Blanchard wondered the same thing after stuffing her trunk with photo albums.
The Taylor Bridge Fire has burned across about 22,000 acres of tinder-dry grass, sagebrush and timber in rural communities east of Cle Elum, about 75 miles east of Seattle.
Gusty winds and high temperatures hampered efforts Tuesday to deal with the fire burning on grassland, timber and sagebrush east of Cle Elum.
The winds are supposed to begin to die down Wednesday, but DNR Fire Incident Commander Rex Reed says the bad news is temperatures will be rising Thursday and Friday. A lightning storm is another threat facing the effort.
“As we get into the weekend the Northwest is expecting a pretty major lightning event so we’re working very diligently to try to get as much containment of this fire before we get there.”
Organizations have been trying to locate residents with trailers that could help move livestock out of at-risk areas. A shelter for livestock has been set up at the Kittitas County Fairgrounds.
So far, no people have been injured.
But an Ellensburg veterinarian says the wildfire has proved deadly to livestock.
The Seattle Times reports that Dr. Mark Kinsel says hundreds, “maybe in the thousands,” of animals have died, mostly cattle. He said Tuesday afternoon that the full toll won’t be known for days.
Kinsel is a livestock emergency response committee member helping coordinate a flood of volunteers helping out at the Ellensburg Rodeo grounds.
More than 100 animals from turkeys to horses had been logged in by Tuesday afternoon. Many were picked up running loose so a Facebook page was being set up to help match livestock to their owners.
The fire also threatened a chimpanzee sanctuary. “They definitely know there’s weirdness happening,” Outreach Director Diana Goodrich said Tuesday.
DNR Fire Incident Reed said the course of the fire at this point is very unpredictable.
Kittitas County Fire and Rescue Capt. Joe Seemiller said the wind has made it extremely difficult to turn back the flames.
“Unless Mother Nature helps us out here, we’re going to be fighting this awhile,” he said.
Flames could be heading for Ellensburg, which may be a good sign. Even though Ellensburg is more densely populated than some of the areas that have already been effected, streets can provide firebreaks. Those breaks could help the crews contain the otherwise elusive fire.
Officials say a construction crew is believed to have accidentally started the fire. The specific that was working on the Taylor Bridge was contracted by the Department of Transportation. Sparks from a torch may have accidentally caught on nearby vegetation.
The Associated Press contributed to this report