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News / Clark County News

Firefighters remain vigilant as Cowlitz Complex Fire slows, weather cools

By Lauren Ellenbecker, Columbian staff writer
Published: September 20, 2023, 4:39pm

Nearly a month has passed since a lightning storm rolled through the region, sparking more than 40 fires across the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. Now, that number has dwindled to 30.

The Cowlitz Complex Fire, a collective term for the blazes, continues to burn 715 acres, 34 percent of which is contained, the incident management team reported Wednesday. Suppression resources, including two of the seven helicopters assigned to the complex, are being released due to slowing fires.

Management teams are creating contingency lines around fires to act as a safety net in case they grow, though this is unlikely as temperatures drop and moisture rolls into the region, said Robbie Johnson, complex public information officer.

Easing the Grassy Mountain Fire, 4 ½ miles northwest of Randle, and the Snagtooth and Spencer Quartz fires, 21 miles south of Randle, remains a top priority because of their proximity to communities. These are among the most difficult burns to address due to steep terrain. Rocks and tree debris falling downhill pose a hazard to crews, who have minimal foot access on these slopes.

Still, these fires are not a threat to nearby communities, according to fire managers.

Despite cool, wet weather dampening burns, recent rainfall hasn’t been ample enough to trickle through the forest’s dense canopy and soak the ground. That’s why the fires persist, Johnson said.

Without added ground moisture, fires continue to smolder in the forest’s duff layer, a thick bed of unburned leaves, twigs and needles. This mix also includes ash from Mount St. Helens’ 1980 eruption in forestland close to the volcano.

When left untouched and able to dry, duff becomes highly flammable, she said. Containing fires is arduous, requiring crews to dig through duff until they reach mineral soil — usually at least 5 feet deep.

Fire managers don’t expect the blazes to develop, according to the Wednesday update.

Despite ongoing strides in containment, Johnson said incident management teams have observed Packwood residents’ enduring anxiety related to the Goat Rocks Fire in October 2022. The fire, similarly ignited by lightning, scorched more than 6,000 acres in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest.

Due to gusty wind and high temperatures, the fire grew from 90 acres to thousands within a month. What was considered “taken care of” became severe, and residents remember, Johnson said.

“We want to assure the community that we won’t stop addressing the fire until it’s out,” she added. “You can’t just walk away. We won’t let another Goat Rocks Fire happen.”

Further updates on the Cowlitz Complex Fire, as well as trail and road closures, can be found at https://inciweb.nwcg.gov/incident-information/wagpf-cowlitz-complex. Open fires are prohibited across the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, but propane-fueled pits, stoves and lanterns are permitted.

For more information about the Cowlitz Complex Fire, call 360-208-8075 between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. or email 2023.cowlitzcomplex@firenet.gov.

Community Funded Journalism logo

This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.

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Columbian staff writer