Labor Day Fire Storm Destroys Homes, Burns Thousands Of Acres Across The Northwest

Sep 7, 2020

QUICK LINKS/INFO:

-Red Cross: 509-670-5331

-Cold Springs Fire Map

Cold Springs Fire Information (InciWeb)

Northwest Large Fires Map

Washington DNR Fire Info (Twitter)

Washington Smoke Forecast & Air Quality

Updated Sept. 8, 2020, 5:35 p.m. 

Emergency responders and fire crews are attacking numerous fires that began early on Labor Day and continue burning in eastern and western Washington.

Nearly 300,000 acres have burned in the state in under 48 hours. The largest complex, the Cold Springs and Palm Hill fires in Okanogan and Douglas counties, have displaced hundreds of people.

Another fire that began in Spokane County and burned fast into Whitman County devastated the small town of Malden.

Gov. Jay Inslee expressed sympathy for residents during a Tuesday afternoon press briefing.

“We want the people of Malden to know we stand with you. I will probably be there Thursday (Sept. 10),” he said. “We’re looking for every possible help we can render as quickly as we can for the traumatized people of that community.”

Inslee was joined by state Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz. They both said the fires are not only an issue for the east or west side of the Cascades, but something that affects the entire Northwest.

The post office in Malden, Washington burned during a fast-moving wildfire on Sept. 7, 2020, along with much of the rest of the small Whitman County town.
Credit Whitman County Sheriff's Office

“The list of the fires is long,” Inslee said. “The whole of the state of Washington state is connected to the trauma of these fires right now.”

Franz noted that while 90% of fires in the state are caused by human activity, the specific causes of these fires are being investigated.

The Department of Natural Resources, which Franz leads, has closed state-managed recreation areas in eastern Washington through Friday, Sept. 11 due to the current fire threat.

Emergency officials urged all people driving to never throw cigarette butts from cars, and to check tow chains to prevent dragging and causing sparks.

Franz said it’s not yet known whether any fires were intentionally set.

She told the Northwest News Network on Tuesday that the next couple of days will bring more challenging wind conditions for firefighters and air support.

“Maps of Washington State show extreme fire danger in pretty much almost every corner of the state both east and west,” Franz said. “And it’s projected that will carry through for at least the next 48 hours.”

Franz hopes conditions will break by Friday.

Previous Coverage, Sept. 7, 2020:

Labor Day 2020 lived up to its name if you’re a firefighter. It was a day that set up for numerous fires in central and eastern Washington that have burned tens of thousands of acres, and possibly many more.

At least 80 fires started in Washington in what officials call a historic fire event.

The Whitman County town of Malden, population about 200 people, was largely destroyed from a fast-moving fire.

The fire was at the Malden city limits about 1:30 p.m. Monday. An hour later, the entire town was engulfed, according to Whitman County Sheriff Brett Myers.

“And when you have winds blowing 45 to 50 mile-an-hour and you have dry timber, dry grass everywhere, and a fire that’s consuming almost everything in its path … It’s definitely a scary situation,” Myers told the public media Northwest News Network Monday night.

Cold Springs Fire

Additionally, multiple large fires across Okanogan, Douglas and Chelan counties prompted hundreds of evacuations.

The fires started spreading across the state in the early morning, and kept running. The Cold Springs Fire burning in Okanogan and Douglas counties ran an estimated 60 miles north to south in just about 20 hours.

“In my 34-year fire-management career, I haven’t seen anything like that,” said Russ Lane, a fire manager with the Washington State Department of Natural Resources. “Really our actions are limited to keeping people out of harm’s way and working the edges of the fire as best we can.” 

Lane says Monday was a “frustrating day” for firefighters who have had little air support. Planes and helicopters have been grounded because of the strong gusts, blowing smoke and sand.

"I'm sick, the amount of new fires today is unreal. Early estimates figure 288K acres burned today across the state," Washington state fire meteorologist Josh Clark said on Twitter Monday night. "Numerous homes and property destroyed, 30K+ without power.Every one of these was 100% human-caused and therefore 100% preventable."

The impact of the Cold Springs Fire on the towns of Bridgeport and Mansfield was still being assessed late Monday night. Both towns faced Level 3 “Get Out Now” evacuations on Monday.

Perfect Storm

It was the perfect storm of conditions – and not in a good way.

First, it’s been extremely dry in the past month. All those fuels have been ready to burn for weeks. Second, the recent above-average temperatures primed the pump. Then on Labor Day came strong winds out of the north that ensured any current fires or new starts would take off fast. And that is exactly what happened.

These are the kinds of conditions that made 2014 and the Carlton Complex and 2015 for the Chelan and Okanogan Complex fires so bad.

To cap things now, the Evans Canyon Fire in central Washington was already stretching fire resources statewide heading into the weekend – having burned nearly 75,000 acres in less than a week, with nearly 800 personnel assigned to the fire ahead of the Labor Day weekend. The past several weeks have seen numerous massive fires not just in Washington, but across the West, especially California.

In response, the fire preparedness level for the Northwest was raised to a level 5 – the highest possible level.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee declared a statewide emergency Aug. 19 due to critical fire danger, activating National Guard resources.