Four hundred firefighters attacked the Blue Creek wildfire 10 miles east of Walla Walla, Washington, Tuesday. The wind and dry ground let it grow up to 4,200 acres.
I was east of Walla Walla on Five Mile Road and I stopped at this big hill of wheat and I climbed up to the very top of it. And up there I could see helicopters and planes flying back and forth over my head.
I was on this slick wheat. When wheat is harvested and the stubble is left it’s slick underfoot like soap. Dry wheat stubble is really like kindling on the land. It’s basically the straw that’s standing on the land and it’s just so bone dry and it burns really hot and really fast.
And I could see off in the distance plumes of smoke coming off of ridge lines.
Worse than last year
The state is taking over with an incident command team. One of the spokespeople is Sarah Foster. And she said that this fire -- and this fire season -- is a lot worse than they even saw last year, which was a record year for fire in Washington.
“The conditions this year are exceptionally dry,” Foster said. “And we’ve already had a lot of our fire personnel out. For me this is my third dispatch of the year.”
Last year Foster was only dispatched twice.
“And so we know that we've got people who are already starting to feel the fatigue and we need people to do everything they can to keep sparks from starting,” Foster said.
Foster said this fire was “human caused” and is under investigation.
Concerns for farmers
In the Blue Mountains I jumped on a tractor with a farmer named Greg Ferrel. And he was offloading barley to the combine that was harvesting the field. He told me that he was really worried about all the people that are coming up to his farm area to gawk at the fire.
“We were moving machinery and once we got down here to the bottom of the road it was an absolute zoo,” Ferrel said. “And it was a little nerve-racking because people were trying to pass you when there was no room and there was cars coming down the road the whole time. So -- oh, my gosh, this is rough.”
Ferrel sped up and then slowed down trying to make the ride smoother so he could keep talking. His other worry is that the fire will jump toward his farm.
“So there’s Mill Creek Road and then there’s Mill Creek,” Ferrell explained. “If it crossed those two things, then we would be in possible danger.”
Firefighters Tuesday gave him the all-clear to keep harvesting.
Relief crews and air support
The base of operations is set up at Walla Walla Community College. Returning firefighters were sprawled out on the grass trying to catch some sleep. I met crews coming out who had been working or awake for more than 30 hours.
New teams of firefighters were coming in to relieve these tired firefighters, like Ryan Chapman’s crew from John Day, Oregon.
“We’re a 20-man handline crew, and so we do everything from mop-up, initial attack,” Chapman said. “We do backburns if we’re needed and everything.”
They specialize in coming in and digging line by hand in tough terrain.
“It’s a lot of hiking, a lot of digging. And a lot of safety concerns involved,” Chapman said. “So we’re a pretty tight crew. We kind of watch each others’ back and everything like that.”
The crews said the air support on the fire is really huge. Large planes and helicopters are dumping loads of retardant. Someone coming off the fire line showed me a video of that.
After the shift, men and women just came back looking beat. They were sunburned, soot-smudged and exhausted. Firefighters said it’s hard to get a handle on this fire because it’s hard to know where to dig lines in this steep terrain.