700 firefighters battle 72,000 acre wildfire

700 firefighters battle 72,000 acre wildfire »Play Video
Photo by Washington Interagency Incident Management Team #4

ELLENSBURG, Wash. — Firefighters in central Washington worked Thursday to shore up the southern and western flanks of a fire that has charred a wide swath of land in two counties, as they kept watch for thunderstorms that could bring dry lightning and erratic winds.

The fast-moving Colockum Tarps Fire was 25 percent contained Thursday, but it has burned across nearly 113 square miles of dry grass, sagebrush and light timber and destroyed several homes and outbuildings.

Residents of about 100 scattered homes and cabins in Kittitas County were ordered to evacuate Wednesday, and they remained out of their homes on Thursday, fire officials said.

About 700 firefighters were assigned to the fire.

"Fires are always driven by terrain and mother nature, and she holds all the cards so we just wait to see what she plays," said Jeff Sevigney, Fire Command Spokesperson.

Mother nature dealt a somewhat easy hand overnight Wednesday as cooler temperatures and winds from the west helped slow the flames.

The wind turbines and multi-million dollar Wild Horse Visitors Center remains intact. However, dozens of Ellensburg neighbors remain on edge as the evacuation level changes.

"The wind will come up and you've got to move out. That's all there is to it," said Lee Orcutt who lives inside the evacuation zone.

Orcutt lives inside the evacuation zone but chose to stay with his home. He says he isn't too worried because he surrounds his home with thick, green fields.

However, he feels for his neighbors who had to flee.

"It would take your property in a hurry," he said.

Jeff Laukala is one of them. He boarded up his house and left in a hurry. Now, he says all he can do is keep is eye on the fire from a distance and wait.

"We're confident we are as prepared as we can get," said Jeff Laukala who was forced to evacuate.

For Laukala and many others, the size and pace of this fire brings back memories from last summer.

"The Taylor Bridge was a real spooky fire. Fast moving," he said.

Yet many neighbors are grateful fire crews have keep it from moving onto their property.

"Ya, all these people up here would have lost their homes if that fire kept going," Laukala said.

Weekend concert affected?

Smoke from the fire might interfere with a big weekend at the nearby Gorge Amphitheater. It's hosting the Watershed Festival starting Friday.

The Department of Ecology is working with concert organizers to determine if the air quality will be too dangerous.

As of Thursday, there were no schedule changes.

The fire originated south of Wenatchee and methodically churned south along the Columbia River, burning to the north end of a Puget Sound Energy wind farm that sits about 17 miles east of Ellensburg overlooking the river.

Mile Marker 28 Fire

Further south, the Mile Marker 28 Fire near Goldendale was 65 percent contained. The fire has charred about 42 square miles near Satus Pass and forced the closure of U.S. Highway 97 for days.

The highway reopened Wednesday, though travel delays of up to one hour should be expected, with pilot cars leading vehicles through the fire area.

The Associated Press contributed to this report