Update: ‘Connell National Forest’ singed by raging overnight wildfire

Firefighters saved a Connell landmark from a wildfire that scorched 8,700 acres by Tuesday evening.

Regina Grassl, the self-proclaimed ranger of Connell’s “National Forest,” said some firefighters stopped the blaze from reaching the single tree near Highway 395.

It was a bit singed, but the tree and the cutout of Smokey Bear survived the blaze, she told the Herald.

Grassl wasn’t the only person grateful to the firefighters after 30 mph gusts pushed the fire from Mesa to Connell overnight.

The Manton Way Fire started around 1 p.m. Monday near the intersection of Highway 395 and Highway 17. There are conflicting reports on whether it was started by a truck.

Then a cold front blowing through the area made it difficult to stop even with the humidity.

Blowing smoke forced the southbound lanes of Highway 395 to close for several hours Monday evening.

Firefighters worked throughout the night and had the blaze about 70 percent contained by Tuesday night, according to Franklin County Fire District 3 officials.

Franklin County Fire District 1 were joined by firefighters from Franklin, Walla Walla, Benton counties, Washington Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.

About 50 firefighters were still working to keep it in check at 5 p.m.

Homes threatened

Flames came within sight of the Connell Park Estates Trailer Park, but firefighters were able to stop the fire before it damaged homes, according to the Franklin County Graphic’s Facebook page.

North Franklin School District held classes on Tuesday at its elementary, middle and high schools in Connell, but they are limiting outdoor activities until the air quality improves.

The school district opened the high school cafeteria Monday night to anyone needing a place out of the smoke.

Tuesday morning high school workers prepared lunch for the firefighters, while people in the community donated dozens of cups of coffee and several Red Bulls through Kaffrin’s coffee shop.

A lone tree sits in “Connell National Forest” traveling south on Highway 395 before mile marker 51. Noelle Haro-Gomez Tri City Herald

Grassl was grateful for the firefighters who took the time to save the roadside attraction that she and Carol Lindner helped resurrect near milepost 51 in 2017.

The original “forest” started with a branch farmer Ron Loeber found jammed in his combine in 1974. The dryland farmer yanked it out, tossed it to the side and continued his work.

The branch turned into a tree and someone hung a sign on it calling it the “Connell National Forest.”

Then in 1999, two young men used a chainsaw to cut down the tree.

Since resurrecting the “forest,” Grassl added a cutout of Smokey Bear for fun.

Cameron Probert covers breaking news and education for the Tri-City Herald, where he tries to answer readers’ questions about why police officers and firefighters are in your neighborhood. He studied communications at Washington State University.