Winds stoke Washington wildfires; Okanogan, Omak, Republic at risk

Brian MacLean, left, of Okanogan, Jeff Demmitt of Omak and Pat Harris of Omak keep an eye on wildfire creeping toward a friend’s near Omak on Friday.
Brian MacLean, left, of Okanogan, Jeff Demmitt of Omak and Pat Harris of Omak keep an eye on wildfire creeping toward a friend’s near Omak on Friday. The Seattle Times

Strong winds blowing through the Okanogan Valley on Friday fanned several already raging wildfires, pushing them beyond containment lines toward several towns in the Northeastern part of the state.

“The situation in the Okanogan Valley is much more dire today,” Washington Public Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark said. “We have gusts of 25 to 30 mph blowing and spreading the fires, which are now threatening Okanogan, Omak, even Republic.”

With more than 1,100 state Department of Natural Resources employees joined by hundreds of contractors, municipal firefighters, Washington National Guard members, federal workers and crews from at least four other states now battling fires in Washington, the state has largely tapped out its firefighting resources, Goldmark said.

Tor the first time in history, the state has asked for volunteers to help the effort — citizens who already have training or can be trained to “safely and seamlessly be integrated” into the overall firefighting efforts.

“We’re all doing what we can to protect people and structures, Goldmark said.

President Obama declared an emergency in Washington and has ordered federal aid to supplement state and local response efforts.

Obama’s action, which authorizes the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate all disaster relief efforts, means Washington will be eligible to recoup up to 75 percent of the costs to respond to the wildfires.

It also provides direct assistance on the ground in affected communities — with food, debris removal, grief counselors and other resources, said Karina Shagren, a spokeswoman for the Washington Military Department.

With Washington now among the hardest hit of Western states dealing with unusually fierce wildfires this season, reinforcements are streaming in from other states.

In all, 18 fires of at least 100 acres are burning in Washington, with more than 400,000 acres combined — 625 square miles — now scorched.

Little relief is expected from gusty winds in many areas now under siege, the National Weather Service reported Friday.

The raging fires northwest of Omak represented the primary threat to population centers, Goldmark and others said.

Known as the Okanogan Complex fires, the four-lightning sparked blazes grew to a combined 161,663 acres late Thursday, but that number was quickly eclipsed Friday amid erratic winds, said Dan Omdal, a spokesman for the fire’s incident management team.

The blazes are threatening at least 5,100 homes, state DNR officials reported.

All of the fires were in danger of spreading, officials said.

Wind direction has been shifting rapidly, sometimes by 360 degrees in a matter of minutes, said Todd Magliocca, of the Okanogan County emergency operations center.

That can create extremely dangerous conditions for firefighters, who might have to sacrifice structures for safety, officials said.

High winds were also grounding aircraft.

The Okanogan fires “are all kind of bleeding together at this point, and threatening (the town of) Okanogan pretty seriously and Omak, too,” Goldmark said.

At least one of the blazes, called the Tunk Block fire, had crossed state Route 20 north of Riverside, racing toward the rurally populated Aeneas Valley and the town of Republic beyond it.

Amid the gusts, fire crews throughout Okanogan County took on a defensive posture Friday, working to protect generators, power lines and structures, Omdal said.

Evacuation orders remained in effect for the towns of Twisp, Winthrop, Conconully, Riverside and parts of Omak, officials said, and new evacuations were being called for in Okanogan and various rural areas, officials said.

The Twisp River fire didn’t experience the rapid growth overnight Thursday that other fires did, Goldmark said.

Three U.S. Forest Service firefighters died in the blaze that erupted Wednesday afternoon and four others were injured. That fire then blew up to about 8,000 acres, but its size has since leveled out.

The Chelan Complex fires grew by Friday to a combined 134,602 acres, fire information officer Wayne Patterson said.

More than 1,000 firefighters were working on four fires now, as several fires merged Thursday.

Officials overseeing the battle in Chelan County said strong winds seen in the past few hours proved to be less dangerous than feared and more resources became available for the effort.

Cooler weather is expected to prevail Saturday (Aug. 22).

Firefighters made advances in a fire near Pateros, north of Chelan, said Clay Templin, head of Southwest Area Incident Management Team 1.

About 1,000 people were subject to Level 3 evacuations — the highest level — and 354 others were given Level 2 notices, for which they’re expected to be ready to leave at a moment’s notice, said Rich Magnussen, an emergency management specialist for Chelan County.