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Oct. 31, 2020

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Winds fan wildfire concerns in Clark County

By , Columbian Breaking News Reporter

Air quality in much of Clark County improved dramatically overnight Monday, but windy and dangerous fire conditions kept firefighters busy through Tuesday, including a large blaze off Fruit Valley Road that sent plumes of smoke in the air, visible for miles.

Crews were dispatched at 2:32 p.m. to 4808 N.W. Fruit Valley Road for a brush fire with an exposure. The address is associated with Frito Lay, and clouds of smoke rising from behind the building could be seen from as far as Felida.

Helicopters dropped water or fire retardant on the fire, according to emergency radio traffic monitored at The Columbian. Roadblocks were set up to block access to Frenchman’s Bar and Vancouver Lake.

As of about 4:50 p.m., crews were working to prevent the fire from jumping over Northwest Lower River Road. Firefighters reportedly doused the shoulder of the road with water. State officials, who were already in the area for other fires, responded helping with containment.

The dangerous conditions sparking fires countywide will linger, officials said.

Air quality levels dropped into the Good category this morning at a Washington Department of Ecology sampling site after spiking into the Very Unhealthy category Monday night when high winds carried wildfire smoke from Eastern Washington wildfires into the area.

20 Photos
A man runs toward firefighters as sunlight illuminates smoke from a fire along Lewisville Highway on Tuesday afternoon, Sept. 8, 2020. Firefighters were called to the scene and promptly extinguished the blaze. Traffic was routed around the scene. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian)
September Fire and Wind Photo Gallery

Weather observations at Pearson Field showed skies began to clear Monday after 11 p.m. in Vancouver. Air quality remained poor Tuesday in north Clark County for longer but improved as the day continued.

While the smoke is gone, windy conditions remained Tuesday. Wind paired with low humidity prompted a red flag warning for fire danger through 8 p.m. Wednesday.

Winds averaged 14-22 mph Monday into Tuesday, with gusts from 22-38 mph, according to National Weather Service Data. Emergency crews responded to numerous calls of downed wires and vegetation fires overnight.

Fargher Lake evacuation

A fire in the Fargher Lake area Monday night prompted evacuations within a 1 1/2 -mile radius of Northeast 375th Street and Northeast 144th Avenue. Clark County Fire District 10 Chief Sam Arola said crews were dispatched at 9:37 p.m. to the 37100 block of Northeast Wiehl Road when a tree fell and snapped a power line, which sparked and ignited a grass fire.

Gusts of wind pushed the blaze west about a quarter mile, scorching 6 acres and destroying two outbuildings in its path, Arola said. Multiple fire agencies were called in to help.

The Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency employed a reverse 911 call to 345 registered phone numbers in the area around 10:24 p.m., instructing residents to evacuate their homes. An all-clear call was sent out at about 1 a.m., according to a spokesperson at the agency.

Inmates from the Larch Corrections Center and state Department of Natural Resources workers were controlling hot spots in the area Tuesday morning.

East county fire

The department has also responded to Washougal River Road, just past Milepost 5, for a wildfire. A DNR incident commander on scene said the fire started Monday night and was likely sparked by a downed power line. As of Tuesday morning, the fire had burned around 10 acres and was 20 percent contained, the commander said.

Dennis McGehee, who lives in the area, said his power went out around 10:45 p.m. Monday and was restored about four hours later. He got a reverse 911 call urging residents to be cautious of the Washougal River Road fire early Tuesday morning.

“When we first got up, we could see the glow from the patio, but we weren’t terribly frightened because the winds are coming from the east,” McGehee said.

Vancouver fires

In Vancouver, crews were dispatched at 9:14 p.m. Monday to 103 E. 29th St. for an outside fire, said spokesman Joe Spatz. The first arriving crew found a fire with flames stretching to around 2 feet; it charred the side of a building, Spatz said.

The second call was about 20 minutes after midnight at 101 N. Burdick Ave. A hedge had caught fire, likely due to a downed power line, but firefighters stopped it from spreading to two buildings, Spatz said.

Tom O’Connor, Vancouver fire’s deputy chief of operations, said the department has added staff for use of a brush rig and a water tender, in case there are a higher number of dispatches. The increased staffing may remain in place for the rest of the week.

“The winds are the issue. It can increase the danger of stuff that we would generally consider small, and it changes how we fight structure fires, since wind coming through open spaces can make fires more volatile,” O’Connor said.

Crews with Clark County Fire District 3 — which covers Hockinson and Brush Prairie — were dispatched at 11:28 p.m. Monday to 20922 N.E. Risto Road for a vegetation fire. Fire Chief Scott Sorenson said the fire was caused by a downed power line; it did not reach a nearby building.

“We responded to a lot of small fires caused by downed lines,” Sorenson said. “It was over 50 responses. We had to call back people to staff them. We also helped out with the larger fires around the county.”

Firefighters continued to respond to blazes around the city through Tuesday. As crews were battling the fire near Vancouver Lake, others were dispatched to vegetation fires in the areas of North Andresen Road and Idaho Street in central Vancouver, and another in the 15500 block of Southeast Evergreen Highway, east of Interstate 205 along the Columbia River.

Burn ban announced

The county announced Tuesday afternoon that it was prohibiting recreational fires in unincorporated areas due to extreme fire danger. The restriction is in addition to the general outdoor burning prohibition implemented on July 15.

Interim Clark County Fire Marshal Dan Young the recreational ban is a preventive measure to reduce the risk of grass or brush fires as a result of escaped campfires.

“The ongoing hot, dry weather has us concerned with how easy it is for a fire to be ignited by an escaped ember from a recreational fire. A small campfire can accidentally spread to adjacent properties very easily with our current dry conditions,” Young said.

Vancouver Fire Marshal Heidi Scarpelli has also issued a total recreational burning ban in the city. All outdoor burning is prohibited within the city limits. Scarpelli said the ban is due to weather conditions and safety needs, and will remain in effect until weather and fire danger conditions improve. Cooking outdoors in approved propane or charcoal barbecues is allowed.

Air quality a concern

Breathing smoky air can impact anyone, but it is particularly unsafe for children, adults older than 65, people with heart and lung diseases, people with respiratory infections and colds, people who have had a stroke, pregnant women and people who smoke, according to Clark County Public Health spokeswoman Marissa Armstrong.

Armstrong said in an email that the best way to protect your health when air is smoky is to limit time outside and reduce physical activity. It is also important for people to keep indoor air as clean as possible.

That means closing windows and doors at their home. You can also turn the air conditioner on in your home and vehicle to recirculate air to avoid bringing smoky air inside, Armstrong said. Avoid burning candles, using aerosol products, frying food and smoking.

People can learn more about protecting themselves from smoke at: