Power, phone, internet disruptions widespread
A fire that started just south of Omak at 9:45 on Sunday night (Sept. 6) spread south at alarming speed across exceptionally dry vegetation in powerful winds, prompting mandatory evacuations from Omak through Bridgeport almost immediately.
Driven by wind gusts over 50 miles per hour, the Cold Springs Fire jumped the Columbia River near Bridgeport, consuming grass and brush as it burned south to Highway 2 — some 60 miles from Omak — on Labor Day. Fire managers described fire behavior as “extreme.”
As of Tuesday morning (Sept. 8), the Cold Springs Fire had burned 140,000 acres and an unknown number of structures north of the Columbia River. The fire it ignited south of the river was named the Pearl Hill Fire and is being managed separately, according to Northeastern Washington Incident Management Team Public Information Officer Jeff Sevigney. The Pearl Hill Fire had grown to 174,000 acres by Tuesday morning.
Winds out of Omak blew at 30 to 40 miles per hour all Sunday night, with stronger gusts Monday morning, according to Ron Miller, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Spokane. Winds had subsided by Tuesday and weather was cooler, but the forecast is for temperatures in the 90s by Friday and through the weekend, Miller said.
Power, phone and internet service were out for much of Okanogan and northern Douglas counties on Monday afternoon and evening as the Okanogan County Public Utility District (PUD) dealt with fires affecting transmission lines for the entire county. Everyone in Okanogan County lost power at some point on Monday — although not all at once, PUD Community Relations Coordinator Sheila Corson said.
Internet service and some cell phone service were also down because of damage to the PUD’s fiber lines and AT&T infrastructure, Corson said. Virtually all internet in the county — whether supplied by cable or wireless — connects to the PUD’s fiber network at some point, she said.
The massive blaze deposited a thick shroud of smoke over the Methow Valley on Monday night and Tuesday, creating “unhealthy” air quality in Twisp and Winthrop. The air in Omak was “hazardous” on Tuesday, according to air monitors operated by the U.S. Forest Service.
Okanogan County Public Health advised people to stay inside with doors and windows closed and to use an air cleaner with a HEPA filter if possible.
• Shelter for evacuees: Call the Red Cross at (509) 670-5331. The Okanogan County Fairgrounds has space for RVs.
• Power outages: Call the PUD at 1-800-922-7011.
• Livestock: Space at Okanogan County Fairgrounds.
• Air quality: http://www.wasmoke.blogspot.com or the Washington Air Quality Advisory.
The poor air quality forced the Methow Valley School District to postpone the first day of school. In-person classes for students choosing the hybrid mix of in-school and remote learning were scheduled to start on Tuesday (Sept. 8). Teachers plan a lot of outdoor instruction to minimize the risk of COVID infections.
The school district hopes to begin remote learning on Wednesday (the schools had already scheduled Wednesdays as a cleaning day, with no students on campus), but they need to ensure that internet service is up and running, Liberty Bell High School Principal Crosby Carpenter said. The first day students will attend in person is Thursday, “assuming the winds cooperate,” he said.
Power was restored to Twisp, Pateros and Brewster around 6 p.m. Monday after several hours of outage, and to Tonasket, Oroville and part of Omak around 8 p.m. On Tuesday morning, most people — except those in the immediate fire area — had power.
It’s too early to assess the extent of the damage to the PUD’s infrastructure, but they expect it to require “pretty hefty restoration,” particularly in the southern part of the county, Corson said.
Midday Tuesday, a building at the old lumber mill south of Omak was consumed by fire. Embers from the enormous black plume ignited other fires in the area, Okanogan County Manager Maurice Goodall reported in a video of the blaze. Parts of the building had already collapsed, and debris was flying a couple hundred feet from the inferno, with flames “spinning around like a tornado,” Goodall said. A light wind was pushing embers to the northeast. Goodall implored people to stay away from the area.
Washington Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz called Labor Day “a historic fire event,” with 58 new wildfire starts and nine large fires burning in the state.
Firefighters from Mt. Tolman Fire Center on the Colville Reservation; Okanogan County Fire Districts 3, 6, 8 and 15; Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR); and federal, state and local agencies have been working to suppress the fires in Okanogan and Douglas counties.
The Northeast Washington Interagency Type 3 Incident Management Team took over the Cold Springs Fire at 6 a.m. Tuesday, with about 200 people assigned to the fire. A Type 2 incident management team is being deployed to fight the Pearl Hill Fire, Sevigney said.
The Northeastern team requested helicopters to fight the Cold Springs Fire on Tuesday. On Monday, visibility was too poor and winds were too strong to use aircraft, Sevigney said.
With many large fires burning throughout the west, demand for aircraft is high. The Cold Springs management team asked for “whatever we can get,” Sevigney said.
It will be several days before they know how many structures have been burned by the Cold Springs and Pearl Hill fires, Sevigney said.
The fires closed state and county roads, including State Highway 97 between Omak and Brewster, Highway 155 near Omak, and portions of Highways 2,17 and 174 from Bridgeport to Coulee City.
The fire danger prompted DNR to close all lands it manages east of the Cascades at least through Friday.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has authorized the use of federal funds to help with firefighting costs for the Cold Springs and Pearl Hill fires, and for two other fires, the Apple Acres Fire in Chelan County and the Babb Fire in Spokane and Whitman counties.
The Cold Springs and Pearl Hill fires were 0% contained on Tuesday. The cause is under investigation.