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Chunks of flying, burning bark cause new evacuations in Washington wildfires

Kittitas Co. Emergency Response

Smoke and ash from the Table Mountain Complex wildfire is seen near a firefighters' base camp in eastern Washington.

Crews on Thursday were battling a fire that forced dozens of eastern Washington residents to flee overnight with their valuables. The fire sent pieces of burning bark flying miles away and created columns of smoke nearly eight miles tall, some even reportedly creating their own lightning.

The evacuations in the Mission Ridge area near Wenatchee add to the hundreds of people who earlier evacuated across the region due to fires raging over the last few weeks.

The new evacuations came as eight-inch chunks of burning bark were reported to have fallen in Mission Ridge. Those chunks were coming from an explosive fire inside the Table Mountain Complex some six miles away, a fire incident spokesman said.

That fire, along with others nearby, "have grown rapidly over the last few days, sending large smoke columns with burning embers north and east towards the Mission Ridge area," the incident team said in an update Thursday morning.


Some of those smoke columns topped 40,000 feet on Wednesday, incident spokesman Kent Ramsey told NBC station KING5.com

The columns were so hot they generated their own winds, added National Weather Service meteorologist Dan Byrd. "It does create its own little atmosphere," he said, noting that the columns reportedly even created lightning on Wednesday. "We may see that again today," he said.

The region has seen no rain in more than a month, while temperatures have been high and humidity low. Winds have pushed fires into forests with many bug-killed trees that have become easily combustible.

One fire incident commander on Thursday called that combination of conditions so late in September "unprecedented" in his 28 years of firefighting.

Washington state firefighters say three fires currently burning could merge into one massive blaze. KING's Jim Forman reports.

In the Mission Ridge area, the residents of some 150 homes were told to evacuate, but some were determined to stay -- at least for now.

The Table Mountain Fire Complex is actually four fires that have so far burned 30,000 acres within the Wenatchee National Forest. The fires, and dozens of others in eastern Washington, were started by lightning strikes earlier this month.

A second Table Mountain fire on Wednesday caused the closure of Highway 97 for several hours. 

The complex of fires was just 4 percent contained on Thursday morning.

Dozens of residents around Liberty, Wash., were earlier told to evacuate.

NASA

This satellite-based image shows major fires burning in Washington state on Wednesday.

In Liberty itself, a town of several dozen, some residents were preparing to leave if an evacuation order is issued there. 

"This time we're watching it pretty close, real close," Larry Smith told KING5.com as he and his wife packed up.

But Paul Heit told KING5.com that he wasn't packing just yet.

"If I see flames coming over the hill and it's coming 80 miles per hour," he said, "yeah, I'll probably leave."

Some 5,000 firefighters are battling the eastern Washington fires, the largest of which is the Wenatchee Complex at nearly 40,000 acres. Nearly 2,000 firefighters have been deployed there but that complex of fires is just 12 percent contained.

The fires have created bad air quality for residents, especially in Wenatchee, Leavenworth and Cashmere, where the school district suspended classes for the week as a result.

Heavy dust has also covered parts of the region. Some locals have even said the conditions are worse than when the Mount St. Helens volcano blew in 1980, sending ash across the state.

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