Calm winds give hope to firefighters east of Cascades

Homeowner Brad Craig, right, thanks departing firefighters who he said saved his home from a wildfire Saturday morning in Okanogan.
Homeowner Brad Craig, right, thanks departing firefighters who he said saved his home from a wildfire Saturday morning in Okanogan. The Associated Press

A forecast for calmer winds Saturday have firefighters hoping they can begin to get a handle on the blazes raging across Okanogan County.

Friday’s strong winds pushed the Okanogan complex fires to quickly spread; they now have burned more than 227,000 acres, said Todd Pechota, commander of the interagency team fighting the fires. In all, nearly a half-million acres have burned in Washington.

“Today, we’re lucky,” Pechota said Saturday morning. “It’s a lot calmer day in terms of wind. It should help us make some further progress.”

The fires are about 38 percent contained as of Saturday, officials said. Though more than 5,100 homes remain threatened.

Friday, winds gusted to as much as 60 mph through the Okanogan Valley and other areas. The conditions caused several blazes raging in north-central Washington to spill beyond containment lines and move toward several towns.

Firefighters across Washington this week have grappled with a series of fires that have now become the worst fire season in the state’s history. Earlier this week, three firefighters were killed and four others injured fighting blazes near Twisp. An untold numbers of homes and businesses have been destroy and hundreds of residents displaced.

No new deaths or injuries have been reported, Pechota said.

However, one of the firefighters injured Wednesday was admitted to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle on Friday night for treatment of burns.

Harborview spokeswoman Susan Gregg said Saturday that the 47-year-old Okanogan County resident is in satisfactory condition. He works for the Department of Natural Resources, agency spokesman Bob Redling said. He was initially treated and released from a hospital in Okanogan, and then asked to go to Harborview, Redling said. His name was not released.

Puyallup resident Daniel Lyon, 25, remains critical in intensive care at Harborview, with burns over 60 percent of his body.

Officials have said the injured firefighters were trying to escape the flames on foot near Twisp on Wednesday.

The winds made for a historically bad fire week.

One minute, a crew might have been safely distant from a fire, and the next moment at risk as the wind shifted and drove flames toward them.

When helicopters could safely fly, they sometimes found the buckets of water they dumped were blown off target from the hot spots. And sometimes, the conditions were so bad that they couldn’t fly at all.

“Right now, I’m watching all the birds, and they’re coming in,” Okanogan complex fire Rick Scriven said late Friday afternoon from the Omak airport.

All through last week, weather was a key variable on the tactics used by firefighters.

On Friday, facing the fierce gusts, firefighters were in a defensive stance, according to Todd Pechota, the fire’s incident commander.

Crews were stationed around homes and other places that needed point protection, and working with heavy equipment to create fire lines that could keep the flames away. In one instance, where a spot fire started, heavy equipment crews were able to jump on dozers and put out the burn, Pechota said.

On Friday, even the Omak airport was not always secure as a fast-moving blaze ripped through the nearby range.

Despite the winds and heavy smoke, aircraft were up in the air much of the day to drop flame retardants and water. But crews had to adjust for the weather. Helicopters, for example, reduced the amount of water they carried due to winds, said Larry Trapp, air operations branch director. Still, while working in cooperation with ground crews, the aircraft crews saved a lot of structure.

“We were fairly successful,” he said. “Probably for every structure we lost, we saved 10. That’s what we do. But there were some structures that we couldn’t get in the area because of heat or because of visibility. It makes it really tough.”

On Saturday, as the winds died down, Pechota hoped crews could go on the offensive to dig fire lines to start to contain more of the fires.

That effort may involve crews with hand tools, heavy equipment crews spreading water to lay down “wet lines” and burning out areas to rob fires of fuel.

By Saturday morning, the Chelan complex fire had reduced to a combined 86,412 acres, fire information officer Wayne Patterson said. It also now includes the Black Creek and McFarland fires.

The challenge in the Chelan area is the First Creek fire, burning about 10 miles northwest of Chelan. Patterson said crews are trying to keep it away from homes along the lakeshore as the fire tries to move north.

The nearby Wolverine fire ran about 3 miles south into the Entiat River area near Larch Lake on Friday. After better mapping it was also reduced and is about 45,929 acres.

With the winds switching to the southeast, Patterson said he hopes the Wolverine fire will not spread as fast for the rest of the weekend.

Weather on Sunday is supposed to be warmer and drier with winds 7 to 9 mph in the Chelan area, Patterson said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.