OKANOGAN, Wash. (AP) — The massive cloud of smoke began to lift over Washington wildfires on Sunday. But as air quality improves, the fire's behavior could become more erratic and intense, fire officials said.
"It's like a flue opening in a fireplace," said Suzanne Flory, spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service and the Rocky Mountain Incident Management Team. "Smoke serves as a cap on the fire."
The Okanogan Complex of wildfires was measured at 374 square miles as of Sunday morning.
Once the smoke lifts, humidity drops, heat rises and fires can flare up.
Flory said they would not know until Sunday night or early Monday how much the fire had grown on Sunday, but as of late afternoon, fire activity had been relatively quiet. Visibility and air quality improved Sunday.
The complex of fires was estimated to be about 10 percent contained as of Sunday morning, fire spokesman Dan Omdal said.
Containment does not mean the fire has stopped burning. It means it has run out of fuel to burn in that area, either because it has hit a man-made fire line, a drop from airplanes of fire retardant, a road or a lake.
Some of the land within the fire lines is still burning, but other sections have burned out.
"We call it a wildfire, but much of the fire has been tamed," Omdal said. "We are making progress,"
The good news for Sunday is that less smoke means restrictions on air travel will be lifted and more fire tankers can drop water and chemical retardant, Flory said.
Air quality, which has been dangerously bad, will also improve when the smoke cloud lifts, but firefighters won't be able to take a breather. "We tell firefighters, if you see blue sky, heads up," Flory said.
Meanwhile, local officials have downgraded some evacuation notices, allowing some people to return to their homes. Thousands remain under evacuation notices.
Sarah Miller, a spokeswoman with Okanogan County Emergency Management, said residents have been warned to stay ready to leave at any time and to not drive around looking at the fires.
"People driving around are getting in the way of fire operations," Miller said.
Steve Surgeon, a mechanic and scrap-metal seller who lost everything he owns except for his home on the outskirts of Okanogan, said he was just happy to be alive.
He stayed in place as the fire raced over a ridge and barreled down toward his home, flames lapping just feet from his back porch.
"I'm alive," he said with a sigh Sunday. "I shouldn't be, but I am — and that's what matters."
Heaps of twisted and charred metal litter his land where the fire burned through. Surgeon estimates he lost more than $100,000 worth of property, including his shop, his motorcycle, several cars, a travel trailer and all of his tools.
"But I have my life and I have my home," he said. "Everything else can be replaced."
Surgeon didn't have any insurance to help cover the cost of what he lost and was hoping the federal government would eventually offer assistance.
"But all my titles to everything were in the shop, and that's burned to the ground," he said. "I guess I'm just going to stay and just try to slowly rebuild."
Three firefighters injured Wednesday in a fire near Twisp, Washington, are recuperating at home after being released from the hospital, according to the Washington Department of Natural Resources. A fourth injured firefighter remains in critical condition at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, a hospital spokeswoman said Sunday. Three others were killed in the fire.
On Sunday evening, the state Department of Health said that should nearby wildfires reach the site of a now-defunct uranium mine in Stevens County in eastern Washington, the smoke won't be any more toxic than the standard smoke from a wildfire.
In an announcement, the department said that radioactive materials at the Midnight Mine, which is about three miles northwest of Wellpinit on the Spokane Reservation, "won't exacerbate the dangers of wildfire smoke if the fires overtake the site as the naturally occurring radioactive material stays in its original rock form and does not burn."
Nevertheless, the department said, people in the area should take the same precautions as they would with any other kind of smoky air. "People are encouraged to remain indoors to avoid breathing smoky air, which can cause coughing, chest pain and shortness of breath in healthy people," the announcement said.
Meanwhile, a new firefighting mobilization center is being set up at Fairchild Air Force Base near Spokane to help fight wildfires in Washington state. The base will be the staging area for 20 large fire engines and 10 water takers and will be run by a team from San Diego.
The new firefighting resources come one day after the Obama administration approved Washington Gov. Jay Inslee's request for a federal emergency declaration to help firefighting efforts in the eastern part of the state.
The new fire engines are coming from Utah, Nevada, Arizona and Colorado, Inslee's office said.
Sixteen large wildfires are burning across central and eastern Washington, covering more than 920 square miles. More than 200 homes have been destroyed, and more than 12,000 homes and thousands of other structures remain threatened.
More than 1,000 people were fighting just the Okanogan Complex of fires on Sunday.
Blankinship reported from Seattle.
A reference in the third paragraph to the growth of the fire on Saturday was removed.