SELAH — For weeks, Central Washington firefighters worried about increasingly dry conditions, but on Tuesday their fears were realized.
In a matter of hours, flames fed by tinder-dry grasses and pushed by stiff winds blazed across an estimated 6,000 acres north of Selah, forcing evacuations and further fueling worries of a long, hot summer east of the Cascades.
By late afternoon, a shop and a barn were reported destroyed, one home was damaged, and residents of about a dozen homes had been told to evacuate. By early evening, however, the fire slowed and turned northward into a section of the state’s Wenas Wildlife Area, where there are no homes or buildings.
While only about 10 percent of the fire was considered contained, firefighters were beginning to relax a bit by evening.
“At this point, it’s looking pretty good,” said Selah Deputy Chief Jim Martin. “We’re still doing structure protection, but it’s burning off into the sagebrush and away from the homes.”
That was not the case earlier in the day when two tanker planes, four helicopters, a hotshot team and at least 100 firefighters from across the Yakima Valley were rushed to the fast-moving fire.
Officials requested state mobilization to provide additional resources during the midafternoon height of the fire, as it burned up the slope of Umptanum Ridge and down to the Yakima River in several places.
“We did get the state mobilization, so resources are on the way and these volunteers can go home after a long day,” Martin said at 7 p.m.
First reported shortly before 11 a.m., the fire is believed to have started when sparks at an informal shooting range ignited dry grass, not far from Durr and Sheep Company roads, Martin said. The man who was shooting was the first to report the fire.
Target shooting is currently restricted to no later than 11 a.m. in the wildlife area to prevent sparks from starting fires.
Pushed by winds, the fire burned south toward homes north of Selah. Firefighters worked throughout the afternoon and into the evening to protect those homes, said Jim Hall with Yakima County Emergency Management.
About a dozen homes along the eastern sections of Buffalo Road and Clements View Road were under an evacuation order, but there were conflicting reports whether the order was mandatory or a Level II, in which evacuation is optional but strongly recommended.
Conditions are not expected to significantly improve today, when high winds are forecast to be about 12 mph, according to the National Weather Service.
Temperatures will reach the lower 80s today and 85 degrees Thursday. Rain is not forecast for the Yakima Valley for at least a week.
For weeks, authorities had been warning about increasingly dry conditions on the lower slopes of the eastern Cascades, where evergreen forest gives way to sagebrush and grasses.
While the winter snowpack in the mountains remains adequate for the Yakima Basin’s irrigated crops, a well-below-average amount of rain fell in the lower elevations this spring.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s drought monitor, the eastern half of the state is abnormally dry or in significant drought.
Dry summer weather is normal for the region, but authorities said grasses and brush have gotten much drier far earlier than usual.
Drying conditions are perhaps three or four weeks ahead of schedule, according to the USDA.
In May, Yakima County only got about a quarter of its average rainfall — 0.13 inches instead of 0.58 inches. Other parts of the region were similarly dry and the forecast for June doesn’t include much rain.
Tuesday’s wildland fire is the largest to strike the region, but hardly the first. In the last month, at least three fires have started in the Wenas Wildlife Area, a 100,000-acre area. The fires ranged from 3 acres to 83 acres and were caused by illegal fireworks or by someone shooting tracer rounds — also illegal on state lands.