Weather Gives Fire Crews in Wash. a Small Break

YAKIMA, Wash. -- After two weeks of frantic firefighting, the series of fires in the Yakima Complex are mostly contained. However, the Yakima Valley will continue to be enveloped in a smoky haze until at least tonight, forecasters say, with an air quality alert in place for vulnerable populations.

Meanwhile, the Wenatchee Complex and Table Mountain fires are still only minimally contained, with more than 3,000 firefighters on the ground battling the blazes and more than 70,000 acres consumed so far. Authorities have been concerned the two fires could merge, but as of Sunday evening they were still about two miles apart.

Firefighters across Central Washington made good progress over the weekend, aided by cooler weather, higher humidity and only light winds.

"All the fire that we have going on is within the present fire lines," said Steve Stine, information officer with the Table Mountain fire. "It's still burning, but it's within our present line."

In Yakima, the biggest fire of the 75 that were started by lightning strikes Sept. 8 was at Wild Rose, along U.S. Highway 12 near Rimrock Lake. It reached about 2,000 acres by the middle of last week, but hasn't grown for four days.

Authorities say the Yakima Complex fires are 70 percent contained.

"We're winding down," said Sarah Foster, information officer with the Yakima Complex incident command. As of Tuesday morning, patrol responsibilities will be transferred back to local control, in the hands of the Naches Ranger District, Cle Elum Ranger District, U.S. Forest Service and the southeast region of the Department of Natural Resources.

"The weather has definitely been in our favor," she said, which helped crews increase containment significantly over the past few days. At Wild Rose, "It was more geography that was our challenge," with steep, rocky terrain hindering efforts.

About 700 firefighters are still on site at various the Yakima Complex fires, including many crews from out-of-state.

Foster said residents will continue to see smoke rising from some smoldering fires, which officials won't declare fully extinguished until winter snows come, but crews will be closely monitoring them for flare-ups.

The National Weather Service has an air quality alert in effect through tonight, advising that young children, the elderly and people with heart or respiratory conditions stay inside and limit physical activity.

The forecast calls for light winds of 5 to 10 mph today, and patchy smoke remaining at least through Tuesday morning, said meteorologist Vincent Papal in Pendleton, Ore. But air quality has improved over last week, when many local schools canceled recess and postponed or relocated outdoor athletic events.

At Table Mountain, the 30,434-acre blaze was only about 10 percent contained as of Sunday. Firefighters were focusing on tying together existing fire lines, but didn't have updated acreage or containment numbers because the smoke was so thick that visibility was too poor for crews to take infrared scans from the air.

"The fire is just kind of creeping around, rather than having any kind of direction or aggressiveness to it," Stine said.

More than 1,000 fire personnel are assigned to the fire, along with seven helicopters and 10 bulldozers.

So far, two structures near Blewett Pass -- Riders Cabin and the Table Mountain A-frame rental cabin -- have been destroyed, and about 800 structures remain threatened, including historic cabins, mining structures and archaeological sites, officials say.

One firefighter suffered a slight neck strain, but was treated and released by a hospital, Stine said.

The Wenatchee Complex continues to have the highest number of firefighters, with more than 2,000 personnel aided by 10 helicopters, 144 fire engines and 13 bulldozers. The 42,508-acre fire is 30 percent contained, with 200 homes currently under mandatory evacuation, the Associated Press reported.

Fire activity in the Wenatchee Complex over the weekend was light despite gusty winds, allowing officials to drop the evacuation level for several areas down to the lowest alert, meaning residents should be prepared to leave if anything changes. The greatest concern on Sunday was the Peavine Canyon Fire near upper Mission Creek.

The blazes prompted local road closures in several areas, as well as a one-lane closure of U.S. Highway 97 at the summit of Blewett Pass.

Copyright 2012 - Yakima Herald-Republic, Wash.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service