Slowly but surely, life is getting back to normal in communities like Wishram and Centerville after a windswept wildfire spread over the dry Columbia Hills last week.
By the end of the weekend, however, the army of firefighters assigned to the Milepost 90 Fire through state mobilization had gotten the upper hand. The fire had remained stable at 14,500 acres and stood at 85% contained last Saturday.
A state task force took over management of the fire last Wednesday morning at the request of Wish-ram/Fire Protection District No. 11 Asst. Fire Chief Skye Cooper.
Firefighters from Wishram, Centerville/Fire Protection District No. 5, and Rural 7/Goldendale were engaged in the initial attack shortly after the fire started July 31 near Milepost 90 on State Route 14 at around 4:30 p.m.
The State Fire Marshal’s Office approved the allocation of state assistance at 9:45 p.m. on July 31.
The Milepost 90 Fire had burned over some 14,500 acres of tall grass, brush, and some sage on private, U.S. Forest Service, and Bureau of Indian Affairs land as of Friday.
Because the hillsides surrounding the Wishram area have burned in the past few years, the fuels were mainly fast-burning grasses, according to fire management officials. The fire at various times threatened homes, crops, electric power infrastructure, livestock, and water sources.
The fire burned a swath of the Columbia Hills approximately 8 miles long by 2 miles wide.
In a twist of irony, Fire District No. 11 posted this on its website at 10:28 on the morning of July 31: “A RED FLAG WARNING is in effect from noon today to 10 pm Wed. For GUSTY WINDS (15 to 25 mph) and LOW HUMIDITY (12 to 20%). If fires develop they will likely spread RAPIDLY! Please be fire safe! Call in fires right away, so we can get on them fast.”At the fire’s height of activity, the state task force had a team of about 135 firefighters working the fire to achieve a confident level of control and containment.
Firefighters from county agencies, the National Scenic Area, and Yakama Tribal Fire were engaged on the fire from the initial attack and stayed involved until the state task force commander called the fire substantially contained last Friday.
Gusting wind pushed the fire from its point of origin upriver, to the east, and across the Columbia Hills that form a physical barrier between Centerville farming country and the Columbia River Gorge.
The fire increased to 1,200 acres in its first 90 minutes. Soon, the fire was moving north up canyons, then east over the hillsides.
Due to gusting wind, air assets were unable to effectively engage the fire and departed after a few water drop attempts. Meanwhile, dozers, engines, and hand crews painstakingly encircled the fire.
By late Tuesday, firefighters from the county and other agencies had the fire 20% contained.
Throughout the night, crews worked to build containment lines and conducted burnout operations within control lines, even as the fire grew from 5,000 to 11,000 acres. Containment reached 30% over-night.
On Wednesday morning, fire crews wind-tested the fire lines for the first time to see if they would hold. They did, though firefighters had to deal with a trouble spot in the northeast corner of the fire’s footprint.
The saving grace in the Milepost 90 Fire is that fire crews managed to keep the fire from damaging or destroying structures within the fire footprint. A task force spokesman also reported no firefighter injuries during the first four days of firefighting activities.
Still, there were many tense hours for residents in the fire area. The Milepost 90 Fire led the Klickitat County Sheriff’s Office to issue Level 3 (Go now!) evacuation notices Tuesday night to some residents in the Wishram Heights area on the north side of SR 14 and to residents in Centerville east of Dalles Mountain Road, south of String Street, and west of US 97.
Level 3 also applied to the Maryhill Winery south of SR 14 and Pat’s Ranch Mart near the junction of SR 14 and US 97.
A Level 2 evacuation (Get set!) was issued for Centerville and Wishram residents south of SR 14 in the early hours of the fast-running fire, and for the community of Maryhill from US 97 east to John Day Dam Road.
KCSO rescinded all evacuation levels at 6 p.m. on Thursday after the threat of fire to homes had been mitigated.
Klickitat County’s Department of Emergency Management estimated 75 residences fell under the KCSO-issued evacuation levels.
On Wednesday, the Washington State Department of Transportation closed a 17-mile stretch of State Route 14 in both directions between U.S 197 in Dallesport and U.S. 97 in Maryhill because of firefighting activities.
WDOT reopened this corridor to two-way traffic at 3 p.m. on Thursday, at reduced speed. The speed reduction has since been lifted.
The Type 3 attacking task force turned over management of the fire on Friday to a Type 4 monitoring team with three engines. Its task for the weekend was to patrol the fire for hot spots that may have been still smoldering in the fire’s dirty interior.