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Wildfire battled near Wenatchee


Capital Press

WENATCHEE, Wash. -- Wildfire destroyed three homes, forced the evacuation of 60 more and burned 42,663 acres in mountainous terrain known as the Colockum south of Wenatchee.

Growth potential of the Colockum Tarps Fire was listed as extreme and by July 30 firefighters were concerned of it getting into timber on the western flank. If that happens "we can't stop it because all the smoke will impede what we do," Mike Asher, an operations section chief, told people at a community meeting at Malaga Fire Hall the evening of July 29.

Smoke smothered Wenatchee and the village of Malaga that evening after winds kept them clear the first three days. The fire's immediate advance toward Wenatchee was stopped by firefighters the first day.

The fire started at about 8 a.m. July 27 near the intersection of Colockum and Tarpiscan roads 15 miles south of Wenatchee and 8 miles south of Malaga. The cause is under investigation.

The fire grew quickly in dry grass and brush and Chelan County Fire District 1 went to second and third alarms relatively quickly, which triggered state mobilization, bringing firefighters and equipment from around the state. Helicopter and aircraft were used throughout the day.

"We thought we were ahead of it, but at 8 p.m. winds switched and came down drainages at 40 mph and we lost riparian areas and homes," said Mike Burnett, District 1 chief. A few firefighters sustained minor injuries, he said.

By July 29, 332 firefighters and support staff, four helicopters, 37 fire trucks, five water tenders and four bulldozers were involved. Firefighters were securing the northern and southern ends and establishing a line on the west side.

There were no reports of loss of livestock. Most cattle were in higher summer grazing out of danger and those lower were moved, residents said at the meeting. One rancher lost 8 tons of baled hay. Lower elevation winter range for cattle and wildlife was lost.

Much of the fire area is state Fish and Wildlife and Department of Natural Resources lands, said Pete Lopushinsky, an area rancher and manager of Fish and Wildlife's 100,000-acre Colockum Wildlife Area. He was concerned more winter range not be lost to the south. He said 5,500 elk and other wildlife need it.

One building was lost to the fire at the Colockum Wildlife Area headquarters, Lopushinsky said. The headquarters is above the Columbia River, 17 miles south of Wenatchee on the Chelan and Kittitas County line.

Ross Hurd, a Pitcher Canyon rancher, was concerned loss of winter range may push wolves back toward his ranch. David Volsen, a Fish and Wildlife biologist, said wolves previously seemed to have left the area but typically migrate to higher terrain with elk.

Across the river from the headquarters, cattle ranchers Mike and Pam Sachs had a good view of the fire and firefighting efforts the first day.

"We got a little nervous because ash was falling on us," Mike Sachs said. "It got pretty hot. There were flames all over on the other side."

They watched helicopters, an amphibious plane and tanker planes led by spotter planes work. They saw an abandoned mobile home, at the corner of Colockum and Tarpiscan roads, burn up in minutes.

"The fire was about to reach right above the game farm (wildlife area headquarters) when the wind changed and created its own fire tornado. It came back on itself, big, twisting and full of fire. I've never seen anything like that before," Mike Sachs said.

The command center of a national fire management team was set up at Wenatchee High School and then moved to nearby Pioneer Middle School.

Evacuations were along Colockum, Tarpiscan, Kingsbury and Ingersoll roads in Chelan County. Lower-level evacuation warnings were issued to residents of several roads in Kittitas County.


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