Fire lit up the dark sky in Ellensburg late Saturday night, caused by a thunder and lightning storm. Reports and pictures of the new blaze in Eastern Washington started circulating around 7pm. By closest estimates, the lightning bolt responsible was said to have struck some time around 6pm. Kittitas County Fire District 7 and the Washington State Department of Natural Resources responded immediately, sending a team to control the flames. Additionally, two helicopters dumped water on the fire until darkness suspended their efforts.
Facebook activity soared with family members reaching out, and town members in the vicinity of the fire asking about evacuations. Pictures were posted, showing the angry red, orange and yellow triangles of flame against the black sky. Others relayed the towering gray and red smoke stack from a few miles away. Emotions of shock and fear were the initial reaction to the news reports.
The blaze, labeled as the Snag Canyon Fire, spread quickly due to the dry timber and brush, and prompted level 3 evacuations of over 100 people. By 9:50pm, an emergency Red Cross shelter opened up at Mercer Creek Church. The Ellensburg fairgrounds also opened to stage temporary protection for the displaced pets and livestock of the evacuated families. No other evacuations took place when Kittitas County Sheriff’s Office Cmdr. Darren Higashiyama assured that the burning area was not expected to grow. A second lightning-caused set of flames were reported in the Sky Meadows area southeast of Cle Elum, but that one posed no immediately concern.
By morning, the Snag Canyon Fire had grown to an estimated 3,600 acres in size, which is about five square miles. Janey Pearce of the Washington Department of Natural Resources said that it remained a current threat to homes, and that a DNR type 2 team would take over managing the flames, with a command center at the Ellensburg fairgrounds. Specially equipped planes have completed a map of the burning area to further help emergency personnel with the placement and size of the affected areas. Around 11am, three helicopters resumed dumping water on the fire.
A thick, gray haze of smoke choking the range of visibility and air quality of Ellensburg created an added challenge and obstacle to those fighting to quench the flames. It also made it nearly impossible for the aircraft to accurately map the overall area of the burn. As a result, the Kittitas County Emergency Operations Center has not been able to provide much solid detail or information about reported structure damage. The unconfirmed number relating to structures lost, however, is estimated at eight to 12.
Evacuation notices were updated Sunday to include the entire Sun East area, putting about 179 homes on Level 2 and 3 alert. Robbins Road has closed at Smithson Road because of the fire, and the Forest Service has closed both the Forest Service and Liberty Rock roads near Blewett Pass. Reports assure that residents in this area will be not affected.
Details continue to come in from The Daily Record and Facebook, keeping the public as up-to-date as possible. Yet, the overall report is of progress and confidence. With the help of the Fire Department and the team of dedicated workers, the blaze caused by lightning in Ellensburg is quickly being quenched.
By Rachel Roddy