Towering above everything are wind-farm turbines that are gathering energy from gusts that seem to come from every direction. "Just look at the grass out here," said Liam Shaw, a resident of Bettas Road, as he pointed to a knee-high field near his house. "The wind moves so strangely around here that sometimes it actually seems to make a circle." And that, said firefighter Jim Black, is the problem. Those gusts over the next few days will carry sparks to dry grass and timber to start new blazes. "And each one of those burning embers, in these winds, may float 20 feet — or a mile," he said.
ELLENSBURG – Firefighter Jim Black, his face spotted with soot, stood near the northern edge of the Taylor Bridge wildfire Wednesday and tried to explain just what fire crews faced.
“Fire is always trying to climb a hill,” said Black, a contract tender operator who drives a 4,000-gallon water truck. “And look at this place: It’s nothing but hills.”
Three days into this 22,000-acre blaze, firefighters appeared to catch a break as the winds and hot temperatures driving flames up and down those hills finally seemed to abate. But the view from where Black stood made it clear that trouble still lay in store.
Behind him, a trio of pumper trucks doused singed grasses that repeatedly flared and raced toward the road. In front of him, flames shot up trees like tiny rockets on a ridge that separated just two of the region’s kooky mix of crisscrossing, interconnected valleys.
And over Black’s right shoulder, on a ridge across Highway 97, a thick patch of unburned trees led the way to a potential conflagration. That stretch of forest reaches toward Blewett Pass, where invasions by mountain pine beetle and spruce budworm have killed or weakened tens of thousands of Douglas fir and pine trees.
“If it gets running in that string of trees it could just keep going and going,” Black said. “It could be a catastrophe.”
Already, the fire has been epic for Kittitas County. It has forced the evacuation of as many as 500 residents and destroyed 70 or more homes and structures. The nearly 900 firefighters, almost all from Washington-based state and federal agencies, have dug 40 miles of fire line and are being supported by 43 engines, air tankers and water-carrying helicopters.
County Commissioner Alan Crankovich called the fire “an event of historic proportion for this area.”
Rex Reed, the incident commander, called it a “perfect storm situation” – one of very few such fires he’s seen.
With hot, dry weather expected to continue, the worst may be yet to come.
“I would expect we are at least five to seven days from full containment and control,” Reed said early Wednesday. By evening he was adding that the fire would probably continue to smoke until winter snows arrive.
Fire-management officials said the fire is now 25 percent contained.
Russ Hobbs, the Kittitas Fire District No. 7 chief, said that in just three days “we had five incidents where we almost lost people and equipment.”
Fire commanders said they wanted to make sure there weren’t any more, and over and over urged leaders to keep preaching safety. One firefighter sustained minor burns to his face – the only person injured in the fire so far, according to Glenn Kohler, spokesman for the Washington Incident Management Team 2.
As evening approached on Wednesday, firefighter Jesse Chiprez, 36, was preparing to lead a 20-person crew carrying chain saws into the hills above Horse Canyon. Chiprez, after 12 years fighting fires, still calls his mother before every fire. He knows just how risky any blaze can become.
“I’m a coward,” Chiprez said. “I tell this team that I don’t have the guts to have to tell any of their mothers that I let them get hurt.”
In fact, because the danger was great, the bulk of the fight continued by air. As acre after acre of trees exploded in the hills above Hidden Valley, spotting new fires over the ridge into Horse Canyon, choppers dropped buckets of water and a tanker made repeated dumps of retardant.
Still, the stubborn blazes continued, the smoke gathering so thick in places that fire victims couldn’t always tell if their homes were still standing.
Roy and Mary Grinnell, of Bellevue, drove to Cle Elum on Wednesday to check on their cabin on Lookout Mountain, which they feared had burned. They’ve had it for 7 ½ years.
Roy Grinnell said they were fortunate that the fire hadn’t destroyed their personal residence, as it had many others, “but with cabins we have a lot of blood and sweat in those places.”
Scott and Beth Oswald, of Seattle, also drove over Wednesday to check on their cabin, also on Lookout Mountain. Scott Oswald has been building the cabin – he still isn’t finished – for the past decade.
The Oswalds used binoculars to try to spot their cabin from Elk Heights.
“It still stands,” Beth said, “but there’s fire all in there still, so we’re not sure what’s going to happen.”
The fast-moving fire started during construction work on Taylor Bridge near Cle Elum on Monday.
Ironworkers there had been placing metal up top for the bridge deck, and other crews were working underneath, replacing girders, said Don Whitehouse, a regional administrator for the state Department of Transportation (DOT). A third crew was working on drain pipes, while others were using equipment to move material.
The state had closed the 75-year-old Bristol Fill Bridge, also called the Taylor Bridge, in May. It hired Ridgefield, Clark County, contractor Conway Construction to replace it, a $2 million project. The two-lane bridge spans a ravine, and work was expected to be completed this fall, DOT spokesman Mike Westbay said.
Some time on Monday, a state safety inspector spotted a small brush fire under the bridge. He called 911, but it was too late. The cause of that brush fire is the subject of a multiagency investigation.
Whitehouse said other media reports about the fire being caused by a cigarette are untrue. Conway Construction released a statement Wednesday saying it is cooperating.
“A cause of the fire has yet to be established. Our thoughts and prayers are with those who have suffered losses, those who remain in harm’s way, and those who are battling the blaze.”
But the problem with Taylor Bridge is that it’s almost a misnomer to call it a single fire – it’s really dozens of individual blazes often separated by miles.
Fire has burned through both banks of the Yakima River. There are north-facing, timbered slopes ablaze. There are south-tilting, grassy pastures that now have smoldered for days.
And towering above everything are wind-farm turbines that are gathering energy from gusts that seem to come from every direction.
“Just look at the grass out here,” said Liam Shaw, a resident of Bettas Road, as he pointed to a knee-high field near his house. “The wind moves so strangely around here that sometimes it actually seems to make a circle.”
And that, said firefighter Jim Black, is the problem. Those gusts over the next few days will carry sparks to dry grass and timber to start new blazes.
“And each one of those burning embers, in these winds, may float 20 feet – or a mile,” he said.
Craig Welch and Theodoric Meyer reported from the fire scene.
Reporters Mike Carter, Emily Heffter and Jennifer Sullivan also contributed.
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