Massive Chelan County wildfire causes highway detour

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CHELAN COUNTY, Wash. - The massive wildfire burning in Chelan County has started to jump Highway 97A,  prompting the temporary closure of a 30-mile stretch of that road between Wenatchee and Chelan.

The Mills Canyon wildfire, about 4 miles west of Entiat, threatened about 200 homes as hot, dry weather raised the risk of more wildfires across central Washington. 

A house fire Tuesday started the wildfire in the Mills Canyon area.

As of late Thursday night, the fire had grown to 18,400 acres in size.

At times, the smoke has been so thick that US Highway 97A is shut down on the Chelan County side. It's impossible for drivers to see. The detour takes people about an hour out of their way.

It's not only smoke that's caused authorities to shut down the highway for traffic. The flames have actually burned down to the road and across it in some places. Utility poles have caught fire, too.  

There is no estimate when the highway might reopen.

The line of fire crept further throughout the night, burning through sage brush and grass. The flames roared over a hilltop overnight, causing burned debris to topple down to the road, along with rocks from a jagged cliff.

Meanwhile, more than 200 homeowners are on standby for evacuation in different areas, ranging from Level 1 "be alert" to Level 2 "be ready" to Level 3 "flee immediately."  

“You can worry about things when there isn't anything to worry about.  In this particular case, it looks like last night, there was a lot of work being done to slow things down, so I’m not really worried,” said Hal Hawley who lives off of Entiat River Road.

The fire continued to grow and smoke was visible in Wenatchee. 

About 400 fire personnel are at the scene with three air tankers dropping retardant and four helicopters dipping water from the Columbia River and dropping it on the flames. 

Crews were able to form a containment line on the north side of the fire, but it is still not under control.

No serious injuries have been reported, and the only home lost is the one where the fire began.  Three outbuildings have been lost in the fire.

A shelter for displaced residents was opened at Entiat High School where a Washington Incident Management Team also set up a command post. But Red Cross volunteers left Wednesday afternoon because the mandatory evacauations were lifted. Volunteers will return if the evacuation advisory is upgraded. 

Another fire early Wednesday burned about 800 acres - more than a square mile - near Quincy. Grant County Fire District 3 Chief Don Fortier told The Wenatchee World that it was nearly out by midmorning.

The situation could become more serious because of weather conditions. Temperatures in the 90s, combined with low humidity and breezy conditions mean any fire would spread rapidly. Hot weather is forecast through the weekend.

"Things are so tinder dry over here," said Susan Peterson, a fire information officer. "Any source of flame whether it's a cigarette ash or Tiki torch, somebody barbecuing or using a lawnmower can start a spark."

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