160 homes threatened near Chelan; thousands evacuated

Up to 160 homes remain threatened by a series of wildfires that already have destroyed at least 21 houses plus several businesses, and scorched more than 100,000 acres.

Between 80 and 100 homes are at risk around the southern area of Chelan, according to Chris Schulte, manager of the team coordinating the firefighting on the Wolverine and Reach Complex fires. Additionally, as many as 60 homes are threatened by the First Creek fire, Schulte said at a Sunday news conference.

Thousands of people have been evacuated.

Emergency management officials and firefighters are dealing with limited resources and are prioritizing their operations around those structures.

“We don’t have enough resources to put this huge containment line around all the fire,” said Sgt. Kent Sisson with the Chelan County Sheriff’s Office.

Still, Schulte said, firefighters have enough resources to manage the current blazes.

The Reach complex, a series of fires around Chelan, has grown to about 54,500 acres, according a daily report by the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center. The Reach fire started as five small lightning fires that grew together on Chelan Butte and raced northwest along the southern edge of Chelan. A strong wind changed Friday afternoon, sending the fire east into south Chelan and across the Columbia River into Douglas County.

The Wolverine fire, northwest of Lucerne, has burned nearly 39,000 acres, and the First Creek fire, northwest of Chelan, has torched about 1,725 acres. The Black Canyon fire, west of Pateros, has burned 3,000 acres.

Authorities are beginning to tally the damage caused so far. Between 50 and 75 structures have been destroyed. Twenty-one of those have been confirmed as homes, according to Sisson. The fires also destroyed some businesses, including the Chelan Fruit complex and a lumber business, according to Sisson.

The loss of the businesses, especially the fruit complex, is devastating for the region, Sisson said.

More than 2,700 people remained Sunday morning at the highest evacuation level, according to Sisson.

Fifty-four people stayed overnight Saturday in Red Cross shelters, according to Colin Downey, spokesman for the organization. The organization has shelters open in the towns of Brewster, Chewelah, Hunters, East Wenatchee, Entiat and Republic.

On Saturday, more than 1,600 people were evacuated in the Chelan area after a series of fires sprung up and merged. The Reach complex of fires is made up of the Reach, Antoine and Cagle fires.

About 2,000 business and residential customers in and around Chelan were still without power Sunday afternoon, according to the Chelan County Public Utilities District. That is down from 9,000 on Saturday, according to Kimberlee Craig, spokeswoman for the district.

Crews were working to restore power to those customers as well as Internet service in the region, said Craig.

The fires in the Chelan area are just some of the many statewide destroying property and forcing evacuations.

And with wildland fires raging in Idaho, California, Montana and Oregon, wildfire-fighting resources around the region are stretched to the limit.

Both Washington and Oregon have reached the most severe level on a national wildfire preparedness designation.

The Northwest Interagency Coordination Center, the group that coordinates state and federal agency response to wildfires, said more than 2,200 firefighters and support personnel were working in Washington as of Sunday, with another 5,400 people working in Oregon.

Nationally, every available wildfire crew, engine and aircraft is already committed to a fire, a spokeswoman for the center said. The national fire coordination center on Friday asked the Department of Defense for the aid, the first request for ground personnel since 2006.

The Washington National Guard over the weekend mobilized about 200 people to battle the fires, including all five of the guard’s 20-person wildfire teams. Also heading to the fires are an additional Black Hawk helicopter crew and maintenance team and disaster response groups for tasks like setting up tents for firefighters. A kitchen crew is expected to deploy on Monday.

“It’s no secret that resources are stretched, and folks are looking elsewhere to see what can be brought in,” said Karina Shagren, a spokeswoman for the Washington Military Department. “There could be the potential that we start looking out of state for more.”

Shagren said the Guard hadn’t received any formal requests for additional support as of Sunday morning. The Washington Guard has another 125 people with wildfire training available, though they need crew bosses to go into the field.

For the those battling the fires, it’s an exercise in triage with limited resources.

The group coordinating the region’s response said some of the firefighters working to contain a 122-acre fire in North Cascades National Park were reassigned, and one burning nearby was virtually unattended because of other, more pressing fires.

Washington National Guard crews were initially slated to head to the Cougar Creek fire near Mount Adams. But when fires converged near Chelan, the Guard units were directed there, said Joe Smillie, a spokesman for the Department of Natural Resources.

“We were hoping to get those guys here to get out in front of it a little better,” said Smillie, who’s been on site at the Cougar Creek fire since Tuesday. “Everybody’s spread thin, and there’s not too many reinforcements in the area.”

For now, Smillie said, they would make do with the crew of firefighters assembled from the DNR, Forest Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and Yakama Nation, as well as some private contractors.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency said it had approved a slate of requests to help pay the state’s wildfire tab. Federal funds will be available to cover 75 percent of Washington’s firefighting costs for the Reach complex, Okanogan County and Stevens County fires, as well as the Stickpin fire in Ferry County.

The federal grants don’t cover losses for homes and businesses, or other infrastructure damage.