Feeding on parched grass and sage brush, a wildfire that blackened an estimated 5,000 acres on Rattlesnake Ridge will continue keeping firefighters busy for several days.
Its cause unknown, the fire began Wednesday evening on the west end of the ridge that separates the Upper and Lower Yakima valleys east of the Yakima River.
Within a few hours flames began threatening the Alps Mobile Park, where 58 homes sit on the base of the ridge.
“It spread with a vengeance. Thank God, literally thank God, had the wind been blowing in any other direction, we’d be gone,” said park resident Twilla Riley.
Heeding the advice of firefighters to leave, Bill Atwell was driving out of the complex when he turned back and saw the flames headed toward his home.
“It was a nightmare, when I turned around and saw (the fire) coming down I thought, “It’s gone,” he said referring to his home.
Flames came within two feet of several homes, but firefighters prevented the loss of buildings there or elsewhere as the fire burned a roughly 3 1/2 -mile-long path to the east.
Firefighters don’t have an estimate on when the fire can be contained or extinguished.
Upwards of 200 local, state and federal firefighters were joined by two water-dropping helicopters and at least one bulldozer carving fire breaks on the steep, mostly roadless ridge.
While firefighters were successful at saving homes and farms, the weather didn’t make it easy.
Low humidity levels combined with high temperatures gave firefighters a heat index of nearly 120 degrees, said Yakima Fire Department spokesman Jeff Pfaff.
“Then these guys have two or three layers of clothing, which will create even more heat in the body,” he said. “And then the risk of heat stroke can hit these guys quickly.”
The low humidity caused grass to ignite quicker than usual, he said.
Relatively low winds helped firefighting efforts, but also caused air quality to grow progressively worse, especially in the Lower Valley.
By Thursday afternoon, air quality in Toppenish was listed as moderate, while farther east in Sunnyside, it was listed as unhealthy for sensitive groups. The thickest smoke was closest to the ridge.
Yakima Valley residents should refrain from burning anything outdoors, stay inside when possible, and remain aware of where their air conditioner is drawing air from, said Mark Edler with the Yakima Regional Clean Air Agency.
“If you’re inside, make sure that if your air conditioner recirculates inside air; be doing that and the same thing with your car,” he said.
Edler said the fire needs to die down and winds need to pick up before the smoke clears.
“But obviously high winds and a wildfire aren’t a good combination,” he said.
Winds shifted Thursday, causing the fire to change to a southeast direction, away from Konnowac Pass Road, which was shut down most of the day. When the wind shifted it created 7-foot-tall flames as the fire moved faster as it traveled uphill.
Winds are expected to pick up to 10 mph around 2 p.m. Friday and then climb to 15 mph around 5 p.m., according to the National Weather Service.