Fighting fire with fire

Fighting fire with fire
A home in the community of Plain shrouded in wildfire smoke. The nearby Cougar Creek Fire prompted level two evacuation notices as firefighters worked to set up containment lines. Photo: TJ Martinell

Washington experienced yet another weekend surge of new wildfires that continue to blanket large portions of the state in wildfire smoke. In central Washington, efforts to contain a 40,000-acre wildfire have involved almost 1,000 fire personnel and prompted evacuation notices to nearby communities. As part of their containment strategy, firefighters are now resorting to fight fire with fire.

With the addition of 18 new wildfires on Saturday, this year’s season has now involved over 1,122 fires on more than 300,000 acres. Last year, a total of 404,000 acres burned.

In central Washington, the Cougar Creek Fire near the community of Ardenvoir has burned more than 40,000 acres, an increase of 9,000 acres within a week, and shut down numerous U.S. Forest Service Roads. A level two evacuation was posted for the community of Plain north of Leavenworth after the wildfire spread beyond a fire control point. Along with local, state and federal agencies, out-of-state personnel from states such as Colorado and Arizona have been called in to assist.

With the flames located on steep terrain in high elevation difficult to access, firefighters have dug containment lines to prevent the wildfire from spreading, but as of Wednesday it is only 40 percent contained.

Because of that, Information Officer Michael Davis told Lens that the wildfire still “carries a substantial amount of risk to the surrounding residents. We’re focusing our resources trying to protect the town of Plain and the residences that are in this area.”

The last few days give reason for optimism. Along with doubling the number of crews working at the uncontained sections of the fire, Davis said improved air visibility allowed them to deploy six heavy helicopters capable of dropping 2,000 gallons of water on the fire and then refill at nearby lakes within three minutes.

“With the air attack and crews on the ground to hold the fire in check, it (the wildfire) had very minimal growth overnight,” Davis said.

Crews are now fighting the wildfire with fire by doing a “back burn” or “burnout” of forestland adjacent to the main fire.

“The key is that it’s done in such a way that’s it’s low intensity,” Davis said. “It doesn’t kill all of the trees; it just cleans out everything on the ground, but it doesn’t wipe out the forest. We remove all the fuels in front of the fire and then the fire hits that black area, and it can’t advance.”

In addition to Cougar Creek, Washington firefighters along with inter-state personnel are fighting the Crescent Mountain Fire just north of Lake Wenatchee that has burned 31,000 acres and is 34 percent contained. The nearby McLeod Fire has burned 16,278 acres and is only five percent contained.

However, Davis says that the total acreage affected can be misleading. Rather than fully consume the entire area, wildfires “burn in a mosaic” and can set a “really good stage for the re-habitation of wildfire and plant species.

“When you look at the map and see that area, many people think everything inside that area has been completely destroyed, but wildfire doesn’t work that way for the most part,” he said. “It’ll burn with different intensity depending on the aspect of the hill, the terrain. If the wind aligns with the fire, it will push it rapidly up a hill and then it’ll burn very intensely, then maybe back up the other side slowly.”

He added: “When you look at an area after a fire, you’ll find areas that have been burnt just to white ash, areas that have just had the ground fuels destroyed or removed, and areas that are untouched.”

Air quality in the state remains poor due to the ongoing wildfires in both Washington and British Columbia, and the National Weather Service reports that wildfire smoke currently over the Pacific Ocean could blow over in Western Washington. Although rain is possible this weekend in the Cascades and eastern Washington, an interagency blog observes “there is potential for new wildfire ignitions due to lightning that come along with that storm.”

While some Washingtonians may be tempted to compare their air quality to that of cities such as Beijing and Delhi, the Washington Smoke Information blog says that “is not a proper comparison” because those cities “experience terribly compromised air quality primarily in the winter months. And it’s MUCH worse than what we experience, even during wildfire season. In spite of our wintertime temperature inversions and woodsmoke concerns, we’re still in far better shape at that time of year.”


  1. Absolutely stubborn refusal by officials to call in the Supertanker to deposit 19,000 gallons of retardant per sortee and end this fire threat. I guess they just want to prolong their work time and say to hell with the threats to persons and private property. More Democrat incompetence.


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