OKANOGAN The huge cloud of smoke began to lift over Washington wildfires on Sunday.
But as air quality improves, the behavior of the fires in the north-central part of the state could become more erratic and intense, fire officials said.
“It’s like a flue opening in a fireplace,” said Suzanne Flory, spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service and the Rocky Mountain Incident Management Team. “Smoke serves as a cap on the fire.”
The Okanogan Complex of wildfires was measured at 374 square miles Sunday morning, after growing more than 100 miles larger Saturday in what fire officials said was a relatively calm fire day.
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Once the smoke lifts, humidity drops, heat rises and fires can flare up.
Flory said they would not know until Sunday night or early Monday by how much the fire had grown on Sunday, but as of late afternoon, fire activity had been relatively quiet. Visibility and air quality improved Sunday.
The complex of fires was estimated to be about 10 percent contained as of Sunday morning, fire spokesman Dan Omdal said.
Containment does not mean the fire has stopped burning. It means it has run out of fuel to burn in that area, either because it has hit a man-made fire line, a drop from airplanes of fire retardant, a road or a lake.
Some of the land within the fire lines is still burning, but other sections have burned out.
“We call it a wildfire, but much of the fire has been tamed,” Omdal said. “We are making progress,”
The good news for Sunday was that less smoke means restrictions on air travel will be lifted and more fire tankers can drop water and chemical retardant, Flory said.
Air quality, which has been dangerously bad, will also improve when the smoke cloud lifts, but firefighters won’t be able to take a breather. “We tell firefighters, if you see blue sky, heads up,” Flory said.
Meanwhile, local officials have downgraded some evacuation notices, allowing some people to return to their homes. Thousands remain under evacuation notices.
Sarah Miller, a spokeswoman with Okanogan County Emergency Management, said residents have been warned to stay ready to leave at any time and to not drive around looking at the fires.
“People driving around are getting in the way of fire operations,” Miller said.
Three firefighters injured Wednesday in a fire near Twisp are recuperating at home after being released from the hospital, according to the state Department of Natural Resources.
A fourth injured firefighter remains in critical condition at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, a hospital spokeswoman said Sunday.
Three other firefighters were killed.
Meanwhile, a new firefighting mobilization center is being set up at Fairchild Air Force Base near Spokane. The base will be the staging area for 20 large fire engines and 10 water takers and will be run by a team from San Diego.
The new firefighting resources come a day after the Obama administration approved Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s request for a federal emergency declaration to help firefighting efforts in the eastern part of the state.
The additional fire engines are coming from Utah, Nevada, Arizona and Colorado, Inslee’s office said.
Sixteen large wildfires are burning across Central and Eastern Washington, covering more than 920 square miles. More than 200 homes have been destroyed, and more than 12,000 homes and thousands of other structures remain threatened.
More than 1,000 people were fighting the Okanogan Complex of fires on Sunday.
Steve Surgeon, a mechanic and scrap-metal seller who lost everything he owns except for his home on the outskirts of Okanogan, said he was just happy to be alive.
He stayed in place as the fire raced over a ridge and barreled down toward his home, flames lapping just feet from his back porch.
“I’m alive,” he said Sunday. “I shouldn’t be, but I am — and that’s what matters.”
Heaps of twisted and charred metal litter his land where the fire burned through. Surgeon estimates that he lost more than $100,000 worth of property, including his shop, his motorcycle, several cars, a travel trailer and all of his tools.
“But I have my life and I have my home,” he said. “Everything else can be replaced.”
Surgeon didn’t have insurance to help cover the cost of what he lost and was hoping the federal government would eventually offer assistance.
“But all my titles to everything were in the shop, and that’s burned to the ground,” he said. “I guess I’m just going to stay and just try to slowly rebuild.”
At a glance
Firefighters across the West saw little relief over the weekend as wildfires raged in the drought-stricken region. But crews in Washington soon will receive additional resources from other states.
A look at large Western wildfires:
Firefighters were gaining some ground against a California wildfire that led to the evacuation of thousands of people and destroyed a lodge in Kings Canyon National Park.
Despite relentlessly high temperatures, fire crews increased the blaze’s containment to 7 percent, the U.S. Forest Service said. The wildfire has burned across more than 73 square miles of timber and brush left parched by the state’s extended drought.
At least 2,500 campers, hikers, employees and residents fled the area last week, including staffers and summer campers at the Hume Lake Christian Camp.
Firefighters and residents were bracing for a return to more intense fire activity in western Montana, where wildfires have scorched thousands of acres and threatened some small communities.
A fire weather watch posted Sunday warned that gusty winds and low humidity were expected Monday afternoon in Glacier National Park and in the Kootenai and Flathead national forest areas.
On Glacier’s southern boundary, a wildfire was about a mile south of the town of Essex, where about 100 area residents have been advised to be ready to evacuate.
Fire spokesman Jonathan Moor says crews were working to keep the fire away from the town, but it was difficult to predict what the flames would do over the next couple of days.
Cooler temperatures and reduced winds helped firefighters on Saturday who were battling a large wildfire in Oregon south of the towns of John Day and Canyon City.
Fire officials expect winds to pick up Sunday, but since winds were expected to blow out of the southeast, they will send the fire back into an area that has already burned.
The lightning-caused Canyon-Creek Complex of fires has burned about 109 square miles since Aug. 12.
To the northeast, firefighters made progress Saturday on the Grizzly Bear Complex in northeast Oregon and southeast Washington. The five lightning-caused fires have burned more than 95 square miles since Aug. 13.