Officials: Central Wash. wildfires may merge into 'monster blaze'

CLE ELUM, Wash. - Massive wildfires raging in Central Washington are threatening to merge together to form a monster blaze that would be bigger than the city of Seattle, officials say.

The wildfires so far have tripled in size, thanks to a combination of warm temperatures, winds, very low humidity and low moisture in the vegetation. More than 1,100 homes are threatened by two of the fires, dubbed the Table Mountain Fire and Wenatchee River Complex.

Adding to the woes, the weather forecast for Friday and into the weekend is ripe for more big problems, and more potential evacuations.

A fire weather watch has been issued for possible dry lightning and thunderstorms from late Friday night through Saturday night for the south central Cascade Mountains and valleys as well as the area south of Lake Chelan.

"These thunderstorms are expected to be dry and bring the potential for new fire starts," the National Weather Service said in a statement. "Lightning strikes will also be a concern for firefighter safety."

The Table Mountain blaze is being fought by more than 750 firefighters and was 5 percent contained by Thursday night, fire managers said.

It has not burned any homes, but 161 homes north of Ellensburg and in the Liberty area are under a Level 3 evacuation, meaning residents are urged to leave, Kittitas County Sheriff Gene Dana said Thursday. So far, about 1,250 people have been evacuated.

An additional 640 homes also are potentially at risk from the Table Mountain Fire.

The Table Mountain Complex is one of several wildfires burning on the eastern slopes of the Cascade Range.

The largest, the Wenatchee Complex, has grown to about 65 square miles. It was 24 percent contained and was being fought by more than 2,000 firefighters. It threatens about 350 homes, and 600 people have been evacuated so far as a precaution.

The fires are blanketing Eastern Washington with smoke, and dry conditions have led the state to issue restrictions on logging and other industrial activities in the forests.

The Table Mountain and Wenatchee River complexes are moving closer together, fire officials have said. If they merge they could form into one giant blaze of more than 100 square miles.

Thousands of firefighters are battling dozens of wildfires that were sparked by lightning earlier this month up and down the east slopes of the Cascades.

Smoke from the fires is pouring across Eastern Washington, obscuring the air 200 miles away in Spokane. State officials have warned of hazardous air quality in Ellensburg and Wenatchee from the thick smoke. They are advising residents to stay indoors, limit physical activity and keep doors and windows closed.

The smoke has already prompted some schools to relocate weekend sporting events. Central Washington University is moving its Saturday football game against Azusa Pacific from Ellensburg to the Seattle suburb of Bothell.

"Unfortunately, areas around Wenatchee remain in the worst shape," said Sean Hopkins, of the state Department of Ecology, in Yakima. "At the same time, other areas are experiencing unhealthy air anywhere smoke lingers from the hundreds of wildfires that are burning."

Air-quality monitors in Chelan County are reading in the hazardous and unhealthy ranges, the agency said. Conditions are getting worse in the Quincy area, and conditions could worsen around Spokane, Pullman and Clarkston.

The Washington state Department of Natural Resources on Thursday announced a shutdown of all logging and industrial operations in the woods to avoid accidental starting of fires. The shutdown covers portions of Douglas, Chelan, Kittitas, Yakima and Klickitat counties.

Logging is restricted to between 8 p.m. and 1 p.m. in portions of Lincoln, Spokane, Stevens, Ferry and Okanogan counties, the state said.