Some firefighters to get break in battle against Washington wildfires

Firefighters walk through heavy smoke Sunday near Twisp. The Okanogan Complex of wildfires grew to 403 square miles Tuesday while the Chelan Complex now covers 146,375 acres.
Firefighters walk through heavy smoke Sunday near Twisp. The Okanogan Complex of wildfires grew to 403 square miles Tuesday while the Chelan Complex now covers 146,375 acres. The Associated Press

Wildfires continued to burn across north-central Washington on Tuesday, but some of the firefighters and support crews in the area will be leaving soon.

“I’m headed home for two days of (rest and relaxation),” said Wayne Patterson, the Chelan Complex fire information officer.

But the threat’s not over. At the First Creek fire, “we’re battling, literally, right up against houses,” Patterson said.

But the people providing fire support and logistics need a “timeout” after 21 days, he added.

“I’m ready for a good sleep,” he said.

Firefighters on the lines take two days off after 14 days of battling fires. New crew members will transition in, Patterson said.

Sixteen Australian firefighters have arrived in the United States to help battle the Okanogan Complex of wildfires. Fire spokesman Rick Isaacson said the Australian firefighters will reach north-central Washington on Thursday.

Isaacson said they are midlevel fire managers who will mostly work in support functions, although some may operate bulldozers.

The Okanogan Complex grew in size by 2.6 square miles overnight and stands at 403 square miles.

The Chelan fire crept in size to 146,375 acres, breaking containment. No firefighter injuries were reported.

Instability in the atmosphere could pose a challenge for firefighters Tuesday.

“The weather is more of the same today,” Patterson said. “We’re not having a lot of wind, so that’s a real blessing, but it’s hot and dry and the air is unstable.”

Firefighters are concerned about spotting, when spires of smoke and flame build columns that can throw sparks and start new fires.

“When you get those big columns of smoke coming up, sometimes they’re so strong they can carry whole trees,” Patterson said. “We’re chasing spots a lot.”

The amount of the Okanogan Compex contained by firefighters grew from 10 percent to 15 percent, said incident commander Todd Pechota.

“(The fire) is doing what we like it to do,” Isaacson said. “It’s quieting down in the evening time, when the temp goes down and winds calm.”

About 2,000 people are under Level 3 evacuations and have been directed to leave their homes.

Pechota said the Okanogan Complex ranks as the No. 1 priority wildfire in the nation. There are 1,345 people working on the fire, including fresh “boots on the ground,” said Pechota.

Isaacson said firefighters are working on the east side of the complex’s Tunk Block fire to prevent it from moving any closer to the North Star fire, about 7 miles east.

Houses in the Aeneas Valley lie between the two fires.

The firefighters also are working to protect communications equipment on two nearby mountaintops.

“If (firefighters) lose communications, those folks have to back out until we establish communication,” Isaacson said.

Smoke hanging in the air has kept helicopters and aircraft from dropping water on portions of the fire.

But Isaacson said clearing smoke brings other problems.

“We already have dry fuels on the ground, you get a little heat from the sun and things get active,” he said.

The long-term forecast projects possible relief.

Thunderstorms with lightning and rain could roll through this weekend. Whether the storm helps or hinders fire crews depends on how much rain falls.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.