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Evacuations Ordered, Northwest Looks to Sky for Relief From Wildfires

Wildfires continue to rage across the country, including tribal lands, as many areas are hoping for rain to help fight the battle.

Twelve months ago, when fire burned more than 26,000 acres on the Colville Reservation and forced the evacuation of dozens of residents, firefighters got some much-needed help in the form of rain.

Colville could use some of that luck right now.

The so-called North Star Fire, which started August 13, had consumed 155,000 acres by 8 p.m. August 25, spurring the evacuation of seven areas of the reservation, including the Copper Lakes and Copper Mountain areas.

Fire officials issued a Level 3 evacuation order – Level 3 means the fire presents an immediate threat to the life and safety of the persons in the area. A Red Cross evacuation center was opened at Grace Evangelical Church, 851 S. Miner St. in Colville, and shelter made available at Republic High School, 30306 Highway 20 East. Residents delivered food to elders who were able to return to their homes.

RELATED: Wildfires Scorching Northwest, Including Tribal Lands

The cause of the fire is under investigation. It’s one of numerous fires that have burned 866,320 acres in Washington alone (as of August 25) and 71 wildfires that have burned more than 2 million acres nationwide. Five firefighters have died – three in Washington, two in California.

Fires of more than 100,000 acres, as of this writing: Middle Yukon/Ruby Area, Alaska, 330,824 acres; Soda, Idaho, 283,686; Okanogan Complex, Washington, 256,567; North Star, Colville Reservation, Washington, 155,000; Happy Camp Complex, Klamath National Forest, California, 134,056 (fully contained); and Cornet-Windy Ridge Fire, Oregon, 103,887.

RELATED: Wildfires Scorch More Than 500 Square Miles on Reservations in Northwest

“Many wildfires this past summer,” Yupiit Nation Chief Mike Williams Sr. of Akiak, Alaska, reported August 26. “It caused some evacuations with our villages. The air quality affected a lot of people, especially our elderly.”

Back on the Colville Reservation: On August 26, 648 personnel from 17 agencies – including Colville Tribes and Colville EMS – were fighting the North Star Fire and assisting residents; 5 percent of the fire was contained by that morning.

The fire is fueled by woody debris and light logging slash, authorities reported on Inciweb, a multiagency online information site.

RELATED: Fires, Drought, Melting Glaciers: Tribal Climate Experts Hope We Haven’t Passed the Tipping Point

“Due to poor humidity recoveries and dry fuels, the fire will continue to be active August 26,” officials reported. “Due to strong predicted SW winds, large fire growth to the NE is a significant concern and the communities including the city of Republic and the Highway 21 corridor could be threatened.”

The prediction, unfortunately, proved correct. The fire grew from 155,000 to 168,539 by late afternoon.

In the August 26 Tribal Tribune newspaper, Colville Tribes citizens Wade and Cheryl Michel told of the speed with which the North Star Fire moved toward the Omak home they evacuated. “Firefighters said the whole place was gone in like 10 minutes,” Wade told the Tribune. “They couldn’t do anything before it hit.”

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All day August 26, air tankers, dozer lines and controlled burns helped slow the fire’s progression, and by day’s end there was hope: rain was forecast for the weekend, followed by cooler temperatures – 20 degrees cooler – next week.

Courtesy InciWeb

Incident Commander Irv Leach and his Northern Rockies Type II Incident Management Team say “Thank You!” to the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, Northern Cheyenne BIA, and the local communities for their support during the Muddy Creek Fire.

At the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs Reservation in Oregon, firefighters sprayed water on roads and broke up woody debris, helicopters dropped water, and crews mopped up and monitored burn areas in the north, east and southeast. Some 561 personnel were fighting the 65,300-acre fire, which was 70 percent contained.

Two steps forward, one step back: Light rain fell but was not much help. A helicopter capable of dropping 2,000 gallons of water was sidelined because of hydraulic problems. Isolated thunderstorms and possible dry lightning was expected in the region through the end of the week. All areas of the reservation, with the exception of Tenino Road, were under evacuation order.

On the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation, where the 2,322-acre Muddy Creek Fire was fully contained by August 2, thoughts continue to be with the family of David Ruhl, a Rapid City, South Dakota fire officer killed July 30 fighting a fire in the Modoc National Forest in California. Ruhl, 38, was the first of five public servants killed fighting wildfires this season. The others: firefighter Michael “Mike” Hallenbeck, 21, Echo Summit mountain pass, Sierra Nevada, California, August 8; firefighters Richard Wheeler, 31, Andrew Zajac, 26, and Tom Zbyszewski, 20, August 19, Twisp, Washington.

While the Muddy Creek Fire was no longer a concern, the fire risk continued to be: On August 26, a high fire-risk warning scrolled along the top of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe’s website.

Other fires in Indian country: Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (Montana), 3,372 acres, 71 percent contained August 26; Jicarilla Apache Nation (New Mexico), 1,345 acres, 80 percent contained; Yakama Nation (Washington), 37,900 acres, 15 percent contained.

“We are good,” Gil Calac reported from White Swan, on the Yakama Reservation, early August 26. “Fires [are] about 45 miles west of us but we are smoked in again. We had two days of no smoke, then [August 21] the fire blew up ....10,000 acres this weekend.”

In Arizona, the San Carlos Apache Tribe is managing two lightning-caused fires to reduce fire risk and improve resource conditions.

Courtesy InciWeb

The San Carlos Apache Tribe is managing two lightning-started fires to improve resource conditions.

“The fires are fulfilling the natural and crucial role of fire in watershed health and fuels reduction,” fire managers reported on Inciweb. “This vegetation type needs frequent, low-severity fire to restore wildlife habitat, promote healthy vegetation, reduce fuels and the risk of severe fire, and create safer conditions for visitors and firefighters.”

Officials added, “The Whitetail and Sawmill Fires are not prescribed burns. Though the resource benefits are similar to prescribed fire, these are wildfires that will be used as nature intended. This means they do not have planned ‘end dates.’ Fire managers have carefully determined larger perimeters within which the fire may run its natural course. As long as conditions allow and objectives are being met, crews will continue actively managing the fire. Ultimately, fire will treat portions of, or all of, the land inside the planned boundary.”

The fire, sparked June 16, has burned more than 33,000 acres of grass, oak, juniper, chaparral and Ponderosa pine.