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Heavy Smoke Lowers Chelan Air Quality, Helps Firefight

Fires in north central Washington are continuing to threaten homes and buildings. Thousands of people are still under evacuation orders. But calming winds have helped slow the fires’ progress.

Erik Hotchkiss is a captain with the Seattle Fire Department. His crew has been fighting these fires for more than a week. He said safety is key, especially after 30-hour shifts.

“You stand here long enough you’ll hear trees falling up above us and coming down the mountain. We’ve had rocks roll right through us. Up above we saw one about the size of a large basketball come down the hill,” Hotchkiss said. “So you’ve got to be really aware and vigilant.”

The Chelan Complex has so far burned more than 87,000 acres. About 1,000 people in the Chelan area still cannot return to their homes.

Parts of north central Washington saw “very unhealthy” levels of smoke in the area over the weekend. Smoke hung heavy over the city of Chelan on Sunday, but the thick air meant there weren’t any gusty winds to whip up fires.

“It’s bad for the breathing, but it actually holds down the fire behavior,” noted Chelan Complex incident commander Clay Templin. “So we had very minimal growth in terms of what our fires were.”

Templin said the Forest Service is brining in specialized infrared equipment for air support to see through the smoke.

Smoke is so thick around Lake Chelan that you can taste it in the air. It’s hard to see across the lake, but even with this heavy, thick smoke, there were people still trying to enjoy the summer.

People are still allowed in the lake, but boaters could get in the way of helicopters that are trying to dip water out of the lake and help fight fires.

The air quality in Chelan is expected to stay at “very unhealthy” levels through Monday. That means everyone should stay indoors and wear masks if they are going to be outside.

The Okanogan Complex, a larger fire complex where three firefighters died last week, is still 10 percent contained. It has burned nearly 375 square miles -- or 240,000 acres.

An investigation into what caused the deaths of the firefighters and injured four others last week in the Okanogan Complex in underway.

There are still a lot of unknowns surrounding the deaths of Tom Zbyszewski, Andrew Zajac and Rick Wheeler. A fourth firefighter, Daniel Lyon, suffered burns on more than 60 percent of his body.

Investigators are just beginning to piece together information from interviews.

Investigators said the men were protecting homes near Twisp, Washington, and the winds shifted 180 degrees. Smoke filled the area. The small engine they were driving steered off a curve in the road and down an embankment.

Fire overtook the engine. It was found upright and burned, the three men inside. Lyon was somehow able to walk away from the scene.

Mike Williams, forest supervisor for the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, said they will use the investigation after fire season is over “to figure out what, if anything, we need to change in the way we go about the business of firefighting.”

The Forest Service investigation team will inspect the area for the first time Monday. The cause of the fire is still under investigation.

The Okanogan Complex also burned down about 1,000 wooden transmission poles and caused power outages for more than 6,000 people in Okanogan County. Before the strong winds, 600 people were out of power in the area.

“It’s going to take us a while to get to everything,” The Okanogan Public Utility District’s Dan Boettger said. “We’re trying to get to the population centers first.”

Boettger said in the future the public utility district is looking to build poles with steel instead of wood.