Steigerwald blaze caps busy day for area's firefighters

By Paris Achen, Columbian courts reporter

Published:

Updated: October 5, 2012, 10:05 PM

 

Steigerwald National Wildlife Refuge fire

A wildfire that consumed some 50 acres Oct. 5 at Steigerwald National Wildlife Refuge was visible to motorists and residents near Washougal. Many readers sent photos to The Columbian. Here is a gallery of those photos.

Fire crews continued to battle a wind-fueled brush fire in darkness late Friday in the Steigerwald National Wildlife Refuge east of Washougal.

As of 9:30 p.m. Friday, the fire had consumed 50 acres between the banks of the Columbia River and State Highway 14 and was about a half-mile from the Washougal Industrial Park, said Camas-Washougal Fire Chief Nick Swinhart.

The fire was no longer traveling west toward the industrial area at that time but had flared up in a hard-to-reach wetland on the south side of the fire and jumped the dike that traces the river shoreline, Swinhart said.

“We thought we had it in hand just a little bit ago,” Swinhart said by phone at 9:15 p.m. Friday. “We were about to release some engines. Now, it’s flared up again in another area. It’s still up in the air as far as containment. We knocked down a big chunk of it, but it keeps flaring up.”

More than 30 firefighters and 15 units from Camas-Washougal, Vancouver, East County and Skamania County fire departments, the state Department of Natural Resources and Fish & Wildlife were deployed to the fast-moving blaze, ignited at about 5 p.m. by a discarded cigarette butt, Swinhart said.

By 7:20 p.m., the fire was 40 acres in size and created a spectacular view from State Highway 14, slowing traffic and attracting onlookers.

Some businesses in the industrial park voluntarily evacuated but were not in immediate danger, Swinhart said.

The state Department of Natural Resources was called to tackle flames that had spread into a stand of trees at about 6:27 p.m., but its helicopters couldn’t fly due to heavy winds, said DNR dispatch supervisor Becky Escober.

Fire engines were hampered by soft soil in the refuge’s wetlands, according to emergency radio traffic. Two units were stuck in the soil but had been dislodged by 9:15 p.m., Swinhart said.

The fire was a dramatic end to a day of brush and grass fires throughout Clark County.

Strong winds and low humidity fueled the fires throughout the parched county, spurred by an abrupt change in conditions mid-morning.

Observation records at Vancouver’s Pearson Field showed the air calm shortly before 10 a.m., with relative humidity still at 57 percent, according to the National Weather Service in Portland. But just an hour later, an east wind had kicked up to as much as 21 mph. Humidity had plummeted to 19 percent.

That’s when the mayhem started.

At least nine fires in grass or bark dust were reported during the next four hours, according to emergency call logs. Similar calls continued into late afternoon, keeping local firefighters scrambling.

In Woodland, crews responded to a five-acre brush fire that threatened a residence near Woodland Intermediate School, said Fire Chief Mike Jackson. The call came in at 2:14 p.m., and firefighters remained on scene until after 5 p.m. They were able to save the structure despite difficult conditions, Jackson said.

“The east winds are certainly not helping the situation,” he said.

Firefighters from Portland and Vancouver responded to a large grass fire on Oregon’s Hayden Island around 1:20 p.m. Friday. The two-acre blaze was possibly sparked by power lines, said Portland Fire & Rescue Lt. Damon Simmons. A second alarm was called, and crews appeared to get the blaze under control around 2 p.m.

Shift Commander Scott Taube with Clark County Fire District 6 said his agency responded to a few bark-dust fires that spread because of the wind.

In one case, flames climbed a power pole and burned a power line, Taube said. Most of the other fires were put out by single-engine crews, he said.

A brush fire broke out about 75 yards east of Glenwood Heights Primary School’s bus-loading area in Brush Prairie just before students were dismissed for the weekend, said Gregg Herrington, a spokesman for the Battle Ground School District. Glenwood Heights Principal David Kennedy, along with others, worked to douse the flames with a fire extinguisher and other equipment that was available around the school until firefighters arrived on scene, Herrington said. Students did not need to be evacuated, and parents were informed of the blaze by an automated phone call from the school, he said.

Friday’s wind also felled multiple trees and political signs. Clark County Public Works crews had to remove about a dozen wind-downed trees from roadways, said Brian Loos, the department’s safety and asset management coordinator.

Crews were instructed to push wind-errant political signs to the side of the road.

Wind gusts topped 30 mph at times Friday, prompting the weather service to issue a red-flag warning for high fire danger. Clark County, Cowlitz County and other agencies have announced outdoor burn bans that remain in place even in October.

“It is certainly a rare circumstance,” Jackson said.

Many parts of Southwest Washington have seen only a few hundredths of an inch of rain since late July. That’s not likely to change soon — forecasters expect dry, sunny weather to last well into next week, according to the weather service. And strong winds from the east are expected to persist Saturday.

Paris Achen: 360-735-4551; paris.achen@columbian.com.

Reporter Paul Suarez contributed to this story.