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Some Washington state wildfire evacuees return to singed neighborhoods

By Theodoric Meyer, The Seattle Times –

ELLENSBURG, Wash. — Four days into the worst wildfire to hit Kittitas County, Wash., in years, residents are settling into a new reality: The Taylor Bridge blaze and its consequences will be with them for some time.

A handful of evacuees finally left hotels and shelters Thursday and slowly returned to singed neighborhoods. Some who lost homes or saw sheds and vehicles torched began the painful work of connecting with insurance adjusters.

Residents and businesses not in the path of flames began worrying aloud about other dangers, such as the health risks of inhaling too much smoke.

Fire commanders expressed cautious optimism Thursday, declaring the blaze 33 percent contained by early evening. They hope to have the 22,000-acre fire completely contained by Sunday.

But a new concern loomed on the horizon: lightning.

The National Weather Service issued a fire weather warning for Friday and Saturday, predicting isolated thunderstorms and temperatures that could break 100 degrees in the valleys, especially in the lowlands along the Yakima River and near Ellensburg, on the fire’s southeastern flank.

“The next three days are going to be very dangerous in terms of the potential for wildfire,” said Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark.

Firefighters on Thursday already were seeing temperatures soar and the humidity plummet as late-afternoon winds threatened to gust to 20 mph. Still, the tenor among those fighting the blaze seemed tired but encouraged.

“It sounds like we had a pretty good day out there today,” said Mick Mueller, an incident-command spokesman, “even given the warmer, drier weather.”

The cost of fighting the wildfire so far reached $2.7 million, much of it for the small air force of helicopters and air tankers being used to battle the blaze. The fire has destroyed 70 homes and more than 200 outbuildings.

The fire is still being fought as much as possible by air, even as some 900 firefighters dug firebreaks through the trees or spread water on blackened, knee-high grasses. Many were preparing to spend another night in the makeshift tent city that has sprung up around Cle Elum’s elementary, middle and high schools.

There had only been one real injury — a firefighter who received minor burns to his face had been treated and released. But another firefighter also suffered dehydration, which becomes a bigger threat as temperatures rise.

Meanwhile, many residents tried as best they could to get on with normal life, but the smoke-filled air was on the minds of many.

“I know people are concerned,” said Marna Carroll, 42, the summer coordinator at a historic mill in Thorp, southeast of the fire. A group of older people had been scheduled to tour the mill Thursday but canceled at the last minute, she said, partly because of the air quality.

When Carroll took her daughter swimming in Ellensburg, she brought her to Memorial Pool — an indoor facility.

“You notice that kind of around town not many people are hanging out outside,” she said.

That, for the moment, may be a good thing. Air quality in Ellensburg, according to the state Department of Ecology, has suffered dramatically, prompting concern not just for asthma sufferers but for healthy people, too.

Tuesday, in particular, was bad, with the rolling 24-hour average air quality typically three times worse than recommended. At some points in the day it reached levels the state considers “extremely unhealthy,” said Ecology spokeswoman Joye Redfield-Wilder.

“Tuesday was definitely the worst day,” said Robin Read, spokeswoman for the Kittitas County Public Health Department.

“When we get up into those unhealthy and really unhealthy levels, it’s really not good for even the general public to be out doing strenuous exercise. It’s not like if you step outside to go to your car and go to the grocery store you’ll wind up in the hospital. But the health risks are something to consider.”

Like firefighters and homeowners who keep watching the wind, Read said it’s important to recognize what fire managers have said — the Taylor Bridge wildfire may continue smoking through the summer and fall until snows finally fall.

“We expect that we’ll have some issues for a couple of weeks at least, because it’s going to be smoking for a while — even if the fire’s mostly put out,” she said.

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