PACIFIC COUNTY — The wildfire-plagued West Coast suffered a grueling week of constant hot and dry weather coupled with an unrelenting shroud of wildfire smoke. At times, the air became so hazardous residents were advised to seek shelter indoors.
Pacific County also had a run-in with several small wildfires that tested county resources’ abilities to extinguish them before significant damage could be done.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) issued a Fire Weather Watch and Red Flag Warning on Sept. 9 due to arid conditions and a forecast low relative humidity near 15%. The combination was expected to allow wildfires to spread out of control quickly.
“We had some [extreme] east winds, everything was really dry, and we had scary low humidities,” Pacific County Emergency Management Agency Director Scott McDougall said. “Everything was ripe for a significant fire event [and] if we had had a fire event really take hold, the potential for a significant event was huge.”
Smoke from fires in Eastern Washington pushed by strong east winds moved into the western side of the state mid-day Sept. 9, raising the air quality index (AQI) from Good (50 AQI or less) up through Unhealthy to around 162 AQI in a matter of hours.
The air quality index has six levels: Good (0-50 AQI), Moderate (51-100 AQI), Unhealthy (101-200 AQI), Very Unhealthy (201-300 AQI), or Hazardous (301-500 AQI).
By the morning of Sept. 10, most of the smoke had moved out of the area and huddled off the coast, but a robust jet stream and onshore flow pushed smoke caused by fires in Oregon and California north and east back onto the Washington coast. The result was a massive “smoke storm.”
The invasion drove the air quality index into the hazardous level of 300 AQI and above over the weekend at the county’s official air quality meter on 4th Street in Raymond. The conditions lead state and local officials to advise all residents to remain indoors and NOAA to issue an Air Quality Alert due to unsafe pollutants in the smoky air.
Sunday, Sept. 13, included the worst air quality reading for the area at 339 AQI in Raymond. White Salmon recorded the highest reading in Washington, maintaining a 500 AQI all weekend. Vancouver also reached 500 AQI Sunday night.
Unofficial AQI levels along the seashore on the peninsula were above 200 much of the weekend.
“It’s certainly possibly this is the highest air quality reading we have seen in Pacific County, but the new Washington State Department of Ecology meter in Raymond is much more advanced than in the past,” McDougall said. “I can certainly remember back when we had open slash burning that the air quality would diminish, but much like the covid pandemic, we are certainly in uncharted territory with the smoke and air quality as well.”
According to NOAA and McDougall, some smoke is expected to remain until at least Sept. 17, although rain showers overnight this Monday made a noticeable improvement in the peninsula’s air quality.
Originally, forecasters and weather models expected a strong enough onshore flow coupled with moisture to completely clear the air out, but breezes have remained light.
University of Washington Meteorology Professor Cliff Mass provided a positive note about the conditions: “Although air quality is not improving quickly, the decline in smoke above us Sunday is resulting in more sunlight.”
Fire officials in Pacific County, expecting worsening conditions in 2020, sat down early in the season to hash out a plan to tackle the fire season forecast to be above-normal.
“As this thing started, I was contacted by Pacific County Fire District 1 (PCFD1) Chief Jacob Brundage [because] we had started on some planning for wildfires last year,” McDougall said. “Chief Brundage and Chief Gary Schwiesow from Pacific County Fire District 3 (PCFD3) had some conversations [too].”
McDougall continued, “Mike Karvia, the operations chief from PCFD1, was also involved in those discussions. It was determined that assets would be automatically deployed for certain types of events. All the departments have been really quick to be on scene and have gotten things knocked down [because of the planning].”
Dry, warm conditions also prompted Pacific County Fire Marshal Tim Crose to issue an aggressive countywide burn ban on Sept. 10 that included all outdoor burning, even charcoal grills. The Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife, and Washington State Parks also imposed similar burn bans.
“We simply cannot take any chances right now with the wildfire potential so great,” DNR Commissioner Hillary Franz said. “Recent hot weather has set the stage for fires to start easily and grow quickly — any spark can set off a mega-fire.”
Fire tone rings just hours later
Bay Lane in Bay Center was the center of a firefighter frenzy after a wildfire erupted just hours after NOAA’s Sept. 9 warning. The fire was discovered by a neighbor who was heading to a home on the rural road to water some plants for a vacation homeowner who lives in Portland.
Responders included Bay Center Volunteer Fire Department, South Bend Fire Department (SBFD), Nemah Volunteer Fire Department, PCFD3, PCFD1, and DNR.
The first-arriving units found an approximately 1.5-acre wildfire moving towards the beach and encroaching on the home, coming as close as 20 feet. Crews were divided between protecting the home and extinguishing 6- to 8-foot flames in the heart of the fire.
Crews extinguished the fire within 45 minutes and stayed throughout the evening, mopping up to make sure it remained out. DNR also cut down several trees that were burning inside.
The cause is still unknown and is being investigated by the Pacific County Sheriff’s Office.
Party at the beach?
Less than an hour after the Bay Lane Fire started, 45 miles north of Raymond near Washaway Beach on State Route 105, another fire erupted in driftwood along the shoreline and popular beach. Most of the available Pacific County resources were in Bay Center. South Beach Regional Fire Authority out of Grays Harbor was tasked with tackling the beast.
Video shared with the Chinook Observer captured by passerby Deborah Cutrell showed the fire roaring with 10- to 15-foot flames before firefighters were on scene. The fire was moving north along the rocky shore towards State Route 105.
Crews eventually arrived were able to get an upper-hand on the stubborn fire. They even enlisted the assistance of a shovel operator who lifted burning logs off the shoreline so firefighters could put them out.
DNR also arrived later in the evening and took over control of the fire and remained throughout the night. Residents in the area reported that the fire was still burning on the following morning of Sept. 10.
According to the Facebook group Wash Away No More, the fire “destroyed irreplaceable wood for our next round of beach defense. These logs were essential for extending our protective log groin.” Residents in the Washaway area — which is suffering some of the most severe erosion on the West Coast — have mounted a volunteer-driven effort to protect the shoreline with woody debris that slows the velocity of the surf.
The cause of the fire is unknown.
‘Get out now’
The worst and most dangerous local wildfire came on Sept. 10, when a fire erupted on Payne Lane in South Bend in the late afternoon.
The fire was seen with 30-foot flames that climbed nearby trees that endangered homes on Payne Lane and Ferry Street. Homes in the area were abruptly evacuated with the assistance of law enforcement.
Crews from the SBFD, Raymond Fire Department, PCFD3 and DNR responded.
According to the crews at the scene, the first units from SBFD dumped as much water as possible onto the fire as fast as possible, putting an immediate stop on the fires’ advancement towards the nearby homes.
PCFD3 and the DNR spent most of the evening mopping up the fire, which too included cutting down several burned trees.
Homeowners in the area also spent time watering down their homes and yards as an extra precaution, with several admitting they were now “paranoid another one is inevitable” due to the arid conditions.
“With a quick response and the outstanding turnout with assistance from PCFD3, DNR, and several Raymond firefighters minutes behind our crew a situation that could have devastated our town, was put to bed with ease,” the SBFD stated.