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September 20, 2012 at 2:41 PM

Wildfires rage near Wenatchee

Firefighters rushed to protect more than 600 at-risk homes Thursday as a pair of massive wildfires threatened to merge southwest of Wenatchee.

The Table Mountain Complex and Wenatchee Complex fires had burned across some 70,000 acres by midday Thursday in what officials called the largest fire event in years.

No lives nor homes have been lost, officials said.

But more than 160 homes have been evacuated and smoky air has descended over the entire region, raising public health concerns.

The fires are the result of a “perfect storm” of circumstances, including hot temperatures and a lack of any precipitation since mid-July.

They started on Sept. 9, when a huge lightning storm ignited 110 fires, said Connie Mehmel, a spokeswoman at the Table Mountain fire.

Since then, many of the fires have come together into the two main groups: Wenatchee Complex and Table Mountain Complex, Mehmel said.

The Wenatchee fires had burned 39,300 acres and was 22 percent contained, officials said.

Further south, the Table Mountain fires had burned 30,400 acres and was 4 percent contained.

Fire officials eyed the growth of the two fires warily Thursday, because having them join could be a major step toward finally corralling the two complexes — or it could lead to a far more volatile and dangerous blaze larger than the city of Seattle.

“When two moderate fires merge, they can draw off each others’ energy and become a high-intensity fire,” said Jason Loomis, a regional fire analyst with the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center in Portland. “It can become extreme.”

The blazes can burn hotter and more vertically, sending out significantly more embers and creating new spot fires, which then exacerbate the situation, causing the wildfire to consume more ground even faster.

“When they start to get close, they can start sucking each other in, building the intensity up,” said John Segar, fire management branch chief for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Boise.

But the two fires can also snuff each other out, giving firefighters a chance to focus on creating a line in front instead of all the way around both.

“It could help a lot because at that point it could calm down,” Mehmel said.

The problem, though, is what gets caught in between.

The Table Mountain Complex was the more concerning one Thursday, as it appeared to lurch toward hundreds of homes in the small community of Liberty.

The latest evacuations were further north, though, where residents near the Mission Ridge ski area were urged to leave Wednesday night after reports of “raining burning ashes,” said Alan Hoffmeister, a spokesman for the Wenatchee Complex fires.

One of those evacuees, 45-year-old homemaker Michelle Shermer, said she and her five children had been preparing for the possibility of leaving for a week.

When the call came, Shermer said, they grabbed some last memorables — including an old doll house — and left.

In 13 years of living up on Forrest Ridge, the family had never before had to evacuate, Shermer said.

“We knew it would happen someday,” said Shermer, sitting in a Wenatchee Wendy’s parking lot and wearing a mask to protect herself from the ashy air. “You live with it up here. I’m glad we were prepared.”

Many residents were wearing similar masks Thursday, including 7-year-old Emily Jimenez.

Jimenez couldn’t help playing with the mask as she left Lewis and Clark Elementary School at around 3 p.m.

Her uncle, Moses Verduzco, said the girl would be wearing a mask for the next two weeks.

“You better believe it,” the 22-year-old said. “Better than getting all kinds of diseases from the smoke.”

Comments | Topics: Wenatchee, wildfires

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