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Wildfire forces evacuations, burns thousands of acres in Washington state

By Amanda Schmidt, AccuWeather staff writer
June 08, 2019, 12:52:56 AM EDT

A raging wildfire in central Washington triggered local evacuations and air quality concerns across the state. The fast-moving fire spread rapidly on Tuesday night, growing from 5,000 acres to more than 18,000 acres in Grant County. The fire grew to over 20,000 acres late this past week.

The Highway 243 Fire began near Wanapum Dam in Grant County late Monday, June 3. As the fire continues to grow and spread, it has prompted Level 1, 2 and 3 evacuations in the surrounding area with Level 3 evacuations meaning immediate danger.

"Level 3 Evacuation for Smyrna. Leave Now! LEAVE NOW! POLICE ENROUTE TO NOTIFY RESIDENTS. Level 3 means you are in immediate danger. Load your family and pets into your vehicle, and GO NOW," the Grant County Sheriff's office wrote on Facebook on Tuesday.

Smyrna is about 160 miles east of Seattle.

(Twitter photo/Grant County Sheriff)

The Highway 243 Fire burns in Grant County in central Washington on Tuesday, June 4, 2019.

(Twitter photo/Grant County Sheriff)

Smoke from the Highway 243 Fire in central Washington.

(Twitter photo/@ChiefDepGregg)

Smoke plumes from the Highway 243 Fire on Tuesday.

(Facebook photo/Grant County Sheriff)

The 243 Fire as seen from Beverly Burke Road overnight on Monday, June 3. At this point, the fire is over 300 acres and is threatening less than 25 homes.

(Twitter photo/ NWS Spokane)

It steadily became more smoky and hazy in Spokane, Washington, through Tuesday due to the nearby Highway 243 Fire.

(Twitter photo/ @SE_WA_IMT)

The east head of the Highway 243 Fire on Tuesday.

(Twitter photo/ NWS Spokane)

The radar at the NWS office in Pendleton, Washington, detected smoke from the 243 Fire on Tuesday, which is 90 miles away.

(Twitter photo/ NWS Spokane)

The air quality in Spokane was marked red, signaling unhealthy levels, at 8 p.m. PDT Tuesday, making it the worst in the country.

(Twitter photo/ Grant County Sheriff)

This map indicates the approximate area of the Highway 243 Fire, not the size of the fire, on early morning Tuesday.

The Southeast Washington Interagency Incident Management Team issued their final update on the fire on Friday evening as containment reached 85 percent.

Warm and dry weather over the last week helped fuel the fire. While rainfall has been generally close to average in recent weeks in central Washington, this is a dry part of the country in the dry time of year, according to AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Frank Strait.

"There has been a dry air mass in place and it has been windy during the afternoon and evening hours there, so conditions have been favorable for quick spread of wildfires once you get one started," Strait said.

The local terrain is hilly and rugged, which leads to winds swirling around various features in the terrain. The rugged terrain and shifting winds make firefighting efforts more challenging.

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Crews from across the state are on scene battling the steep terrain and variable winds. Approximately 400 personnel, two fire bosses, multiple helicopters, one air tanker and air attack are on the scene fighting the blaze.

As of Thursday, no homes had been reported damaged and no injuries have been reported. However, several outbuildings have been damaged or destroyed.

"The fire has ran east in the canyon with some extension on the north side but has not crossed Lower Crab Creek," the Southeast Washington Interagency Incident Management Team said in a Facebook post on Tuesday night. "Crews were able to contain it primarily to the canyon. A significant night shift is in place to provide point protection, if the weather allows, they can directly attack the fire."

According to the Facebook post, the fire has been difficult to mitigate due to the many natural and commercial resources threatened.

Several local roads remain closed due to the fire. A Red Cross evacuation shelter opened at the Royal City Intermediate School to provide food, water and shelter for those that reside in the evacuation zone.

The Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Washington Department of Natural Resources have issued recreational closures on public lands surrounding the fire.

Washington fire 6-5-2019

(Facebook photo/ Southeast Washington Interagency Incident Management Team)

Poor air quality has been reported in central and eastern Washington due to the wildfire.

On Tuesday morning, AirNow's Washington Smoke Information blog said that they are "expecting air quality to vary between moderate and unhealthy levels for sensitive groups in Franklin, Adams and parts of Whitman counties between now and Thursday. Worse closer to the fire."

Unhealthy for sensitive groups includes those with heart and lung disease, older adults and children, who are at a greater risk from exposure.

On Tuesday evening, the air quality in Spokane, Washington, was the worst in the country when it was sitting in the unhealthy range.

"It's a dubious honor and certainly not one most of us would choose," according to the National Weather Service.

Winds carried smoke across central and eastern Washington, with some haze visible in Spokane on Tuesday.

Roughly 90 miles away from the blaze, smoke from the fire was detected on the radar at the NWS office in Pendleton. According to NWS, the smoke plume is at least 9,000 feet high near the fire as of Tuesday evening.

The heavy smoke from the fire was visible via satellite, which captures the smoke moving eastward across the state.

Cooler, cloudier weather has moved into central Washington, providing some relief for firefighting efforts.

Several large wildfires in Alberta, Canada, have burned more than 700,000 acres of land and have forced 11,000 people to evacuate, according to the province's government.

Smoke from those wildfires has at times traveled all the way to eastern Canada and the East Coast of the United States, according to Strait.

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