The outlooks for two large fires burning in Central Washington took distinctly different turns Wednesday: the Colockum Tarps Fire in Kittitas and Chelan counties continued to grow while the Mile Marker 28 Fire near Goldendale came increasingly under control.
The Colockum Tarps Fire reached 66,670 acres by Wednesday afternoon, up from about 60,000 the day before, leading to increased evacuations and a ramping up of firefighting resources. The fire began Friday and its cause is still under investigation. It was 8 percent contained Wednesday evening.
“The fire’s been changing a lot,” fire information officer Mary Ellen Fitzgerald. “Fire danger is severe. There is fire in the area that was evacuated” Wednesday morning.
Areas northeast of Ellensburg that had previously been under Level 1 and 2 evacuation have been upgraded to Level 3, meaning residents were advised to evacuate immediately. That covered the area north of the intersection of Christensen Road and Parke Creek Road, northwest to the intersection of Cooke Canyon Road and Gage Road, and Cooke Canyon Road north of Gage Road. And the Wild Horse Wind Farm is now closed to the public, as is the Vantage boat launch and parking area.
Evacuation notices issued earlier Wednesday covered about 75 structures in the upper Parke Creek and Secret Canyons areas. Emergency shelters for people and animals were opened.
Heavy smoke throughout Wednesday prevented air support in some areas of the fire, but that was beginning to change by late afternoon, said John Sinclair, emergency manager for Kittitas County.
“They’re beginning to get heavy work done with air assets,” he said.
Sinclair also said there were likely to be more personnel and resources joining the fight, including additional strike teams Wednesday night, but he did not know specifics.
“They’re still in the ramping-up phase to have the assets match the footprint of the fire,” he said. “We’re still behind the power curve.”
Meanwhile the Mile Marker 28 Fire near Goldendale, which began July 24, increased in size by about 700 acres, from 26,074 to 26,793. Emergency officials listed it as 65 percent contained Wednesday evening, compared to 60 percent Tuesday.
“The fire was not real active today, and it hasn’t been for the past couple of days,” said fire information officer Bernie Pineda. “So we’ve taken advantage of that.”
U.S. Highway 97 over Satus Pass, which had been closed for a week, reopened at noon. And a Level 2 evacuation from Satus Pass south to Box Canyon Road was downgraded to a Level 1.
And, despite predictions of thunderstorms in Eastern Washington, fire officials believe they’ll retain the upper hand.
There may be some erratic winds, but crews have good containment lines around the fire, said Ed Powell, director of Klickitat County Emergency Management. And lightning, which is a threat to start new fires, wouldn’t make much of a difference if it struck in the middle of this one, said Powell.
The reopening of U.S. Highway 97 was a significant turn of events. The highway averages 38,000 vehicle trips per day, up to 25 percent of them commercial trucks, Keith Maybee, maintenance supervisor for the state Department of Transportation said.
The department had closed a stretch of road between Toppenish and Goldendale last week when the fire limited visibility and firefighters used the highway. By Wednesday afternoon traffic was flowing, albeit slowly and behind pilot cars, over Satus Pass for the first time in a week.
“It feels really good to have the road back open. Myself, my crew, we were all running pretty ragged there,” Maybee said. “We’ve been working lots of overtime and I’ll be really happy when things are back to normal.”
The fire had burned up to the shoulders of the highway, destroying a guardrail in one place and damaging a timber retaining wall in another. Crews were wrapping up repair work on both structures Wednesday afternoon.
The burned-out landscape on either side of the highway left a ghostly scene of charred tree trunks and ash-covered ground.
“You look on the shoulders of the road and all you see is burnt up trees and ash,” Maybee said. “It’s just like being in another dimension.”
In several spots, scratches on the road were visible where transportation crews had dragged fire-felled trees off the pavement.