ROYAL CITY — Hundreds of firefighters from across the state have been deployed to the Highway 243 Fire, hunkering down in a Royal City park as the sun set and the second day of attack began on the largest wildfire in Washington so far this year.
Estimates for the breadth of the fire range from 5,000 acres, which was announced by the Grant County Sheriff’s Office shortly after noon Tuesday, to almost 19,000 acres by 8 p.m., according to a fact sheet from the Washington State Department of Natural Resources. Emergency management officials note that these estimates are still largely inaccurate, as crews have been too busy fighting down an unusually aggressive fire to walk the perimeter with GPS units.
Containment figures were similarly only an approximation by Tuesday night, according to Ben Shearer, a public information officer with the Southeast Washington Incident Management Team, which took over communications from the sheriff’s office around 5 p.m. Though lines have been dug on the western portion of the fire, the blaze is still officially considered 0 percent contained until a map of the incident can be made.
Firefighters initially responded around 9 p.m. Monday night to a report of a fire near Highway 243 and the town of Beverly. Initially, Level 1 evacuation notices — which indicate residents should be aware — were issued for Wanapum Dam, followed shortly by Level 3 evacuation notices — which means get out immediately — for Beverly Burke Road between state routes 26 and 243. State troopers went door-to-door along sparse country roads for hours Tuesday night, attempting to contact every resident in the area, one trooper said Tuesday.
Evacuation notices were raised to Level 2 — get prepared to go at any moment — for Beverly, Schwana and Wanapum Dam by 2 a.m. Tuesday, where they remained by the end of the day. Level 3 evacuation notices were issued for Smyrna by 8 a.m. An evacuation center was set up by noon at the Royal City Intermediate School, which provided cots, food and water to evacuees.
The fire grew rapidly from an initial 300 acres since it began Monday night, fed by high wind events and a mix of grasses, sagebrush and Russian olive trees. Though the understory of vegetation has quickly burned, the hardier Russian olive has contributed to areas reigniting, according to fire officials. The fire has generally moved east and was expected to continue to do so, as winds were predicted to pick up to 20 mph Tuesday night.
More than 200 firefighters from at least six fire agencies from across the state pitched in to help battle the Highway 243 Fire, according to fire officials. It marks the first fire requiring a deployment of state resources in the state this year, Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz stated Tuesday.
Beyond private property and farmland, a number of sensitive areas are threatened by the blaze, including Native American archaeological sites and a large monarch butterfly refuge which has already burned over, according to incident commander Tony Gilmer. Section leaders for the fire stressed crew safety repeatedly in an evening briefing, warning firefighters who may not be used to the region to be wary of rapidly shifting winds.
Residents in the Mattawa, Beverly and Schwana areas lost power due to falling poles and disruptions caused by heavy smoke, according to the Grant County Public Utility District. Mattawa-area residents have since had power restored, and Beverly and Schwana was expected to receive power by 9 p.m., but the PUD had not updated the status of the latter two areas as of the time of writing. The Grant County Fairgrounds announced via Facebook it was opening its doors as an emergency shelter for animals - horses, some cattle, pigs, goats and sheep - of those impacted by the fires.
Emry Dinman can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.