Although many wildfires firefighters have been battling for the past two weeks have begun to moderate, a sudden flare-up of smoldering grass near Steptoe Canyon rapidly ballooned into an inferno early Thursday.
Washington state and local firefighters scrambled to get a handle on the flames, hit it with massive force and, by later in the day, were beginning to make headway.
“It’s been a long day, but we are knocking it down pretty heavy,” said Jay Reisenauer, chief of the Whitman County Fire Protection District 14.
It’s believed the fire ignited from lightning that passed through the region Wednesday, Reisenauer said.
“We’re thinking it’s a holdover from a lightning strike from yesterday morning,” he said. “It started in a spot that is really remote, and I think with the cooler weather, it just smoldered.”
Firefighters were notified of possible smoke in the area and went to check it out but found nothing.
“We figured by yesterday afternoon we were safe,” Reisenauer said. “But it must have burned last night and at 2:20 (a.m. Thursday) we got the call.”
The fire was already estimated to be burning about 500 acres by the time volunteer firefighters from the Colton-Uniontown area arrived on the scene. Other volunteer firefighters from Pullman, Asotin County, Moscow and Clarkston were called on for help. Reisenauer said by late Thursday the fire had grown to 2,000 acres. Weather conditions were windy, “but they were mostly in our favor,” he said.
The fire is burning grass and brush in a rugged portion of the canyon, and no structures are currently threatened.
In addition to the volunteers on the ground, several aircraft, including helicopters, retardant planes and heavy equipment, were summoned to assist. The Washington State Fire Services Resource Mobilization Plan assigned three strike teams to battle the blaze from the ground. A Type 3 Incident Management Team took over control of the fire at 6 p.m. Thursday.
Steptoe Canyon Road is closed, and the speed limit in the fire zone on Wawawai Road has been reduced to 25 mph. District 14 officials are asking boaters to stay off the Snake River near Nisqually John Landing.
The Granite Pass Complex is composed of four fires straddling the Lolo and Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest. As of Thursday, it was burning 2,375 acres and is zero percent contained.
Firefighters feared a dry cold front, combined with strong winds, would increase the chance of spotting. Currently they are using roads and natural features to confine all of the fires in the complex within one control line.
A community meeting about the Granite Pass Complex is set for 6 p.m. PST today in the cafeteria at Lolo Elementary School in Lolo, Mont. The meeting also will be livestreamed on the Granite Pass Complex Facebook page.
The Snake River Complex 20 miles south of Lewiston has burned 107,679 acres and is 74 percent contained.
Fire crews along the east central side of the fire continued to mop up along the fire line and seek out hot spots to extinguish them. The work started from the fire’s edge toward the interior to build some depth of a secure fire line.
The Cougar Rock Complex in Clearwater County was estimated at 5,160 acres Thursday, with 25 percent containment.
There are 14 total fires in this lightning-caused blaze, but winds from the west have cleared some smoke from the area, resulting in limited fire growth. With the clearer air and improved visibility, helicopters have been able to fly and support firefighters working on the flare-ups.
Progress has been made on securing and widening the containment lines, and only five of the 14 fires had grown since Wednesday.
There have been no fire spots outside the fire line on the Lick Creek Fire for the past three days, and it is currently 50 percent contained. The fire acreage change was caused by interior burning in unburned pockets that are filling in naturally.
Hedberg may be contacted at email@example.com or (208) 983-2326.