Rattlesnake Mountain burned to stop fire before Hanford, Benton City

Crews were mopping up in Prosser where an overnight fire scorched up to 8,000 acres in the area of Richards Road.
Crews were mopping up in Prosser where an overnight fire scorched up to 8,000 acres in the area of Richards Road. Tri-City Herald

A backfire was set and burned over the top of Rattlesnake Mountain on Sunday night, the only way fire officials could see to keep the fire from spreading to the Hanford nuclear reservation and Benton City.

“It’s all black all the way to the top,” said John Janek, assistant fire management officer for the Mid-Columbia River National Wildlife Refuge Complex, about the northeast slope of the mountain.

Firefighters expected it to merge with the Range 12 Fire, a fire moving toward Hanford between highways 240 and 241 Sunday. The fire started Saturday at the Yakima Training Center and advanced into Benton County on Sunday, spreading across about 94 square miles by evening.

Firefighters tried to burn the top of Rattlesnake Mountain on Sunday afternoon, but had to abandon the effort as it became too dangerous. The weather was windy and the wildfire was spreading toward them, Janek said.

Fire officials were concerned that there would be no way to control the fire if it spread over the top of the mountain and down the rugged and steep slopes of Rattlesnake Mountain, the highest point in the Mid-Columbia.

It already jumped several highways.

Smokey air made visibility too poor to fight the fire from the air at the mountain, the few roads into areas like Snively Canyon are poor and the hillsides are too steep for bulldozers.

About 9 p.m., firefighters again started setting a backfire.

This time, they set it along the 1200-Foot Road near the bottom slope of Rattlesnake Mountain. It parallels Highway 240 as the highway cuts across Hanford between the production portion of the 580-square-mile nuclear reservation and an area preserved as a security zone to the southwest that was between the fire and the contaminated portion of Hanford.

The burn line set was about six miles long. It started at the south down the mountain from the communication towers on its peak and extended about six miles along the 1200-Foot Road to the Snively Canyon area.

The area west of Highway 240 as it cuts through the 580-square-mile Hanford nuclear reservation was originally part of the security zone around the production area and has had limited human activity since World War II.

It remains owned by the Department of Energy but managed by Fish and Wildlife as part of the Hanford Reach National Monument. The section that burned is on the portion of the monument called the Arid Lands Ecology Reserve, which is closed to the public.

Rattlesnake Mountain also burned in the 24 Command Fire of June 2010, which destroyed 11 homes in Benton City, scorched 165,000 acres and threatened radioactive and hazardous chemical waste facilities in central Hanford.

National monument areas were replanted. “A lot of it is gone again,” Janek said.

A wildfire also was burning west of Prosser on Sunday night. An evacuation order for residents there has been lifted.

This news story will be updated.