Updated 1:50 pm Saturday
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Most of the Buffalo Lake Road Fire was quiet yesterday, giving firefighters the opportunity to continue improving containment lines and mopping up throughout its perimeter. In the southeast section, near Swawilla Basin, even with more fire activity, the rocky terrain made it difficult to thoroughly burn out the sparse fuels. Despite these challenges, crews located and built a new containment line that is closer to the body of the fire. This strategy will hasten successful containment.
Utility crews were able to access and repair burned powerlines enabling restoration of electricity to Mt. Tolman and the town of Keller.
All roads in the area including Peter Dan Road, Buffalo Lake Road and Hwy 155 are open. Drivers should use caution, watching for fire personnel and any rolling rocks or debris that has been loosened when the supporting plants and logs burned away.
Today’s weather is expected to exceed 100°F, with relative humidity of 11%. Although winds should generally be light, there’s a chance of dry lightning storms tonight. Crews are alert to the possibility of erratic winds as weather changes and managers have created contingency plans for providing “initial attack” forces if needed in the area.
The current size of the wildfire is approximately 11,091 acres with 82% containment.
Coordination is occurring between the Colville Confederated Tribes, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Washington Department of Natural Resources, US Bureau of Reclamation, Okanogan Fire District 2, Elmer City Fire Department, Coulee Dam Fire Department, Grant County Fire Department, National Park Service and Okanogan County.
Nearly 200 firefighters worked in 100-degree heat yesterday to locate and extinguish the burning fuels throughout the 11,000-acre Buffalo Lake Road Fire, officials stated in a press release. After three days of firefighting in the rugged terrain east of the Columbia River and north of Lake Roosevelt, the fire containment is estimated to be 82% with a few remaining pockets of timber burning in the deep canyons along the northern shore of Lake Roosevelt.
According to Pat Halford, operations section chief for Washington Interagency Incident Management Team 4, those pockets of burning fuels are expected to burn themselves out within two days.
Halford said firefighters spent two days burning out the upper slope above the steep and craggy cliffs above the Lake, driving the fire toward the water’s edge. The strategy, he said, was to stop any spread north or east and allow the fire to consume remaining fuels there. “Lake Roosevelt is a popular recreation area and we want to make sure the fire cannot flare up later and alarm the public,” he said, “so crews are cleaning up the area from the blackened burn to the Lake where it can be done safely.”
Some of the smoke seen throughout the area during the past two days resulted from that burnout that was conducted in the southeast part of the fire, Halford said. In a steep draw in the north end of the fire, a 20-person hand crew and several engines worked to clean up the fire burning in old snag trees. “We expect to have that draw in good shape by the end of today,” he said yesterday.
Other crews spent Friday mopping up within 500 feet of homes and structures along the fire’s western perimeter – between the towns of Coulee Dam and Elmer City. “Infrared heat-detecting devices, called Palm IRs, are being used to locate and extinguish heat that cannot be seen,” Halford said.
The power poles northeast of Coulee Dam burned by the fire were to be replaced by 6 p.m. Friday, Halford said. With the installation of new poles, power is expected to be restored to the community of Keller, which has been without power for more than 25 hours.
Crews throughout all divisions of the fire have been mopping up and rehabilitating areas to standards developed by the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation and the Washington Department of Natural Resources.
“Control of the fire area will be returned back to the Tribes once the mop-up and turn-back standards have been met,” Halford said.
Halford said rocks and boulders throughout the burned-over area pose hazards now that the logs and vegetation that had been holding them in place have burned. “The public is encouraged to stay out of the area until it has been rehabilitated,” he said.
The fire started Tuesday, August 14 at the intersection of Peter Dan and Buffalo Lake Roads. The cause of the fire was determined to be lightning from a storm that passed through the area five days prior. The fire flared up and moved rapidly through dry grass, sage, and sparse ponderosa pine and Douglas-fir timber, driven by erratic winds. By Wednesday evening, the fire had burned across the slope above the town of Coulee Dam and was moving eastward until stopped by dozer lines through the Swawilla Basin.
Heroic work by initial attack forces, consisting of tribal and local fire department resources, on Tuesday saved hundreds of homes and outbuildings along Highway 155 north of Elmer City. A Level II Evacuation Notice was issued Tuesday night to residents of Elmer City and surrounding area. The area remained under a Level I Evacuation Friday.
While the fire burned through the area, Highway 155 was detoured along the Elmer City Access Road for two days as firefighters struggled to keep the fire away from the shore of the Columbia River. At one point, the fire did cross the Access Road, causing the complete closure of Highway 155 for nearly 10 hours.
As firefighters continue to mop up and hold onto the successes of the past four days, Halford anticipates a change in the hot, dry weather with an advancing thunderstorm late Saturday.
“The storm is going to bring lightning. It’s less lightning than what we had anticipated, but we do not expect much precipitation with the storm either,” he said.
The hot and dry weather currently affecting the region is expected to continue for the next several weeks with increased fire behavior in the late afternoons.
When asked how concerned he is about the anticipated dry lightning, Halford said, “We will have to wait to see what it gives us and deal with it accordingly.”
The Washington Interagency Incident Management Team (WIIMT) #4 is managing the fire under the command of Larry Nickey, incident commander.
More than 250 firefighting personnel have been very conscious of firefighting safety principles and are maintaining a stellar safety record. “To date, there have been only a few minor blisters,” Halford said. “We are striving to keep firefighters safe, both day and night, while battling this fire,” he added.
The Colville Confederated Tribe’s seven-member Burned Area Emergency Response Team is evaluating burn severity throughout the southern and eastern portions of the fire and developing a comprehensive plan for the rehabilitation of fire-damaged resources.