BONNEY LAKE, WA – More than 1,000 people have been evacuated and 3,000 homes and buildings remained under threat Friday afternoon, as crews worked 14 active large fires that have burned 626,982 acres in Washington since Monday.
The past five days are the second worst fire season in state history, Governor Jay Inslee said Friday afternoon during a news conference to address emergency response to the fire.
"This has been a cataclysmic event in the state of Washington," Inslee said.
Following visits to the Bonney Lake-Sumner area and Malden, two areas that have been hit particularly hard, Inslee said he is working to offer assistance to families who have been affected by the destruction. He described a "river of fire" in Malden that coursed through the area, destroying 80 percent of the structures in the area.
On Thursday, Inslee issued a proclamation to offer cash assistance to families affected by the fires.
Chief John Batiste of the Washington State Patrol, said the state Fire Marshall's office currently has resources dispatched to 10 of the major fires currently. He addressed rumors that have cropped up in recent days about coordinated efforts to start the fires.
"We are unaware of any coordinated efforts to start fires," Batiste said.
Two people in Pierce County have been arrested in separate incidents for attempting to set fires. Thursday afternoon, Washington State Police arrested a person for lighting grass in the area of State Routes 512 and 7. After a short foot chase, police said they had one person in custody.
On Wednesday, police arrested a 36-year-old Puyallup man for setting a fire in the median on SR167.
"We have no indication that there is a linkage between those two individuals," Batiste said.
Going forward, Batiste asked motorists to slow down, turn on headlights in hazy conditions and pay attention to surroundings.
Washington National Guard General Brett Daugherty, said in addition to 1,000 troops that have been dispatched across the state to help with the COVID-19 response, three firefighting hand crews were mobilized on Friday to Whitney County. These crews join two Black Hawk crews that have been working in the Sumner Grade Fire area over the past week.
Inslee addressed the cause of the fires and highlighted three "buckets" of responses to the fires. First, he said he has been impressed by residents who have been able to save their homes from being burned by clearing brush from around their homes and making their homes "fire wise."
Second, Inslee said it is possible to reduce the intensity of the fires by removing the combustible materials in the forest. Despite the forest management program in the state, Inslee said there is no program that could have protected or slowed the fires over the past few days, because they are brush and grass fires that have not occurred in state and national forests.
Lastly, Inslee called the state a "tinder box" due to the low humidity, high temperatures and high winds that are a result of climate change.
"We know that is because our environment is changing, our climate is changing," he said. "These are not just wild fires, they are climate fires. We cannot and we will not surrender our state and expose people to have their homes burned down and lives lost because of climate fires."
"We've had too many towns burn down already, and I look forward to our state being unified to try to fight this scourge," he said.
In addressing the health threat of smoke and poor air quality, Inslee said he does not expect air quality to improve until Monday. Residents can learn more about the air quality in their area by going to WAsmoke.blogspot.com.
Laura Watson from the Washington State Department of Ecology, discussed the large plume of smoke that developed from the California and Oregon wildfires. The plume of smoke is expected to reach Spokane by Saturday afternoon, bringing with it hazardous air quality. She recommended residents stay inside over the weekend in as a major concern with smoke in the air are small particles that can cause health concerns.
"Just because you can't see it, doesn't mean you can't breathe it," she said.
In response to concerns about balancing the need to stay indoors to avoid the smoke while maintaining social distancing due to the coronavirus pandemic, Inslee said he does not see the two as mutually exclusive.
"We can suggest to people to avoid unnecessary outdoor activity, particularly those who have compromised health systems, but there are certainly ways to be inside and not be within two feet of people," he said.
Inslee also offered help to people who have been evacuated from their homes Oregon find shelter in hotels in Washington. He also offered assistance from the state's National Guard to help Oregon.