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News / Clark County News

Jenny Creek Fire north of La Center now 90 percent contained

Blaze kindled by house fire in rural area swelled to 32 acres; fire official warns such fires will be the 'new norm'

By Alexis Weisend, Columbian staff reporter
Published: August 17, 2023, 6:00pm
9 Photos
Firefighters Michael Hickey, left, and Joe Talarico survey the scene Thursday afternoon, Aug. 17, 2023, after a blaze destroyed a primary residence and surrounding structures on the same property near La Center on Wednesday night. The incident sparked a significant brush fire that prompted evacuation warnings well into the north county community.
Firefighters Michael Hickey, left, and Joe Talarico survey the scene Thursday afternoon, Aug. 17, 2023, after a blaze destroyed a primary residence and surrounding structures on the same property near La Center on Wednesday night. The incident sparked a significant brush fire that prompted evacuation warnings well into the north county community. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

LA CENTER — Small plumes of smoke rose from the blackened rubble of a house fire that spread to the wildland behind it the night before. Ash fell on firefighters walking between the remnants of vehicles, barn walls and furniture caked in ash. A large patch of brush across the road from the house had turned yellow from the heat of the blaze.

An elderly couple owned the property that burned to the ground, said Ben Peeler, Clark-Cowlitz Fire Rescue division chief.

“People need to be aware that this is essentially the new norm in Clark County,” Peeler said. “This is going to become more and more common with changes in the climate.”

The Jenny Creek Fire spread faster than any fire in recent years in Clark County, Clark-Cowlitz Fire Rescue Chief John Nohr said Thursday as state and county fire agencies gained 90 percent containment and 30 percent control on the wildfire still burning north of La Center.

The Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency said that the fire has blackened 32 acres and destroyed a house, barn and some outbuildings on the property where the fire originated. No injuries were reported.

Evacuation zones were changed at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, with previous Level 3 areas downgraded to Level 2 and previous Level 2 areas moved to Level 1. The agency cautioned that residents should remain ready to evacuate should the situation change.

An updated evacuation zone map is available at https://rb.gy/5uck3.

The cause of the fire is under investigation by the Clark County Fire Marshal’s Office, according to Nohr.

Efforts to battle the fire were complicated by high temperatures — it was above 100 degrees when the fire started — as well as access to water in the forested rural area in the Jenny Creek drainage.

“All of our firefighters are there in structural firefighting gear, which is much heavier than wildland firefighting gear. So that combined with the heat can really create challenges,” Nohr said. He said crews were rotated in and out of the fire area as a result.

The first engine that arrived on the scene ran out of water, Nohr said. By the time equipment arrived with 500 additional gallons of water, the structure fire had spread to the trees and quickly moved up a nearby hill.

“You can easily get up to the house because people live there and they come and go all the time,” Nohr said. “But once it’s off in the trees, it’s hard. There’s not always access. There’s not always a roadway to it.”

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The blaze started about 3:38 p.m. Wednesday as a house fire that spread to a barn and several other small structures on the same property and surrounding vegetation, prompting fire officials to call for evacuations that reached into the city of La Center.

Evacuation zones were rolled back later Wednesday evening, but a Level 3 GO NOW zone remains in effect in the area closest to the fire.

Conditions were noticeably cooler on Thursday as crews worked to build direct lines to the fire edges and assessed hazard trees within heavy forest affected by the fire.

“We’re hopeful by end of day today that we’ll shrink down the levels,” said Peeler.

Evacuation call

Simone Auger was visiting her childhood home in La Center when her mom received an alert that they had to evacuate. They packed up their things and went to the evacuation center at the ilani casino parking lot along with her mom’s dog.

“When you have belongings in the home — the idea of losing it just is very frightening,” Auger said.

At 10 p.m. Wednesday, the evacuation level for their property went to Level 1. From their home, they could hear the firefighters and helicopters in the air.

“The coordination on the ground with the sheriff’s office and fire departments and everybody was really organized and helpful, and that was very reassuring,” she said.

La Center Mayor Thomas Strobehn and his family were preparing to evacuate Wednesday evening.

“It was a very stressful situation,” he said. “Besides my family, I also have a bunch of people in the town that I care for, and I wanted to make sure everybody was safe.”

He and his family did not end up evacuating, but the city paid for some of the people who did have to evacuate to stay at ilani.

“I couldn’t stomach the thought of people not having a place to go,” he said.

Peeler advises that people start creating evacuation plans for future fires and thinking about what items they might need to take with them, such as medications. He also recommends that people sign up for the county’s reverse 911 emergency system through Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency. He said only about 10 percent of people in the county are signed up.

With the fire in the heart of its jurisdiction, Clark-Cowlitz Fire Rescue is the primary responding agency. Nohr said most if not all fire departments in the county were fighting the fire on Wednesday, along with the Washington State Department of Natural Resources.

“We don’t staff for the worst-case scenario because that would be very expensive,” he said. “We staff for the most common scenario.”

Larch crews assist

In total, 72 units and five aircraft have helped fight the fire. Around 98 personnel were working on the fire on Thursday. Peeler estimates around 22 of those personnel are inmate crews from Larch Corrections Center — a minimum-security prison near Yacolt that the Washington Department of Corrections recently announced will close this fall.

“Larch Correction has inmate and offender crews here working,” Peeler said. “Where are those crews going to come from next year?”

Nohr said he gets nervous as October approaches — the month the Nakia Creek Fire began in Clark County last year and rapidly spread to 1,565 acres.

That’s around the time when the east winds start blowing, which can make fires spread quickly, Nohr said.

“Any little ignition source can spread quickly, and we saw that just last week in Hawaii where on a normal day, they would have had some brush fires that they probably would have controlled with the resources they had, but they were getting 80 mph gusts of wind,” he said.

Peeler said the strategy for the firefighters is to continue containing the fire with control lines and removing or extinguishing burning material near them.

He expects there will be visible smoke from the fire for the next few weeks, with the center of tree stumps exuding smoke until heavy rainfall.

Additional fire updates are available at www.cresa911.org.