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It was early evening on Aug. 11 when a thunder cell built over Yellow Hill in the Teanaway. Yellow Hill is the dividing line between the Middle and West Forks of the Teanaway River, an area prized by locals for its scenic beauty and recreation.

By 5:47 p.m., an observer at the Red Top lookout station reported a column of smoke near Jolly Mountain. The storm had sent lightning down into the forest below, the start of a fire that would eventually consume 41 square miles of forestland between Lake Cle Elum and the Teanaway, and require the evacuation of more than 1,000 homes.

Mike Starkovich, the fire management officer for the Cle Elum Ranger District who was tracking the fire that night, said the fire quickly grew to 3 acres, then 10, 20 and then 60. An engine crew that hiked into the area reported the fire was 100 acres at dusk. Flame lengths were 60 to 80 feet high within two hours, he said.

“They said they weren’t comfortable getting any closer because of the fire behavior they were observing,” Starkovich told the audience at a public meeting Thursday at Walter Strom Middle School in Cle Elum.

The lightning actually started several fires in the Jolly Mountain area that night. Two were put out, two fires combined into the current Jolly Mountain Fire, and two to the east went out on their own, Starkovich said.

A helicopter the next morning found one fire at almost 300 acres, and another at 95 acres.

“This was never a small fire,” Starkovich said. “Had it been a small fire, we would have made a good attempt to catch it.”

Local officials ordered an incident management team the next morning, bringing in resources to fight the blaze.

“It’s really steep rugged terrain, you can’t move quickly,” Starkovich said. “There’s never been a road built in that country — everything is a hike or you are dropped from a smoke jumper plane.”

There were other complicating factors. Helicopters weren’t available the first night. Trees were damaged by spruce budworm and beetles, Starkovich said. He estimates 40 to 60 percent of the forest was dead canopy, a hazard to firefighters.

“When you stand out on a ridge when wind is blowing without a fire, you can hear snags fall,” he said.

Because of firefighter deaths due to snags in other locations, firefighters have revisited procedures for fighting fires, moving back containment lines to safer locations. One new criteria is that firefighters need to be able to get to a hospital in one hour if they are hurt.

Starkovich said local officials never thought the fire wouldn’t be fought, “we just needed to get it to a spot where we could fight it safely.”

INDIRECT STRATEGY

Since then, three incident command teams — each bringing more people and resources — have rotated in to fight the fire.

Larry Leach, the Washington state DNR assistant region manager, said area officials asked the fire incident teams to pursue an indirect strategy because of the steep terrain and dangerous snags.

“I felt very strongly, as did my boss and the Forest Service, that if we went to the fire when it first started and tried a very aggressive attack, I’m confident we would have hurt multiple people doing that,” he told residents on Aug. 31.

A list of questions and answers provided by the national Type 1 incident command team at Thursday’s public meeting addressed the question of water drops early on.

“Helicopter water drops and retardant drops from plane would not have been effective on such a widespread area in that type of terrain,” the handout said.

Helicopters and FireBoss scooper planes have been used in subsequent weeks on the fire.

State Rep. Tom Dent, R-Moses Lake, who started the Legislature’s wildfire caucus and is a pilot, went to see the fire the first week it started. He described ferocious flames and steep terrain.

Pilots ferrying water have to have a target, and a way out, he said.

“Where I was standing it was impossible to dump a load and get out,” he said.

He thanked the firefighters during Thursday’s meeting.

“We haven’t had any fatalities, we haven’t burned any houses, the weather is getting more favorable, and personally I think that’s pretty good news,” he said.

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