Few fires found despite smoke-filled Tri-City sky

The Tri-City area may have been choked in smoke Sunday but few fires were found, despite emergency officials fielding numerous calls.

"There was just a ton of false calls last night," said Capt. Devin Helland of Benton Fire District 1.

Lightning strikes from Sunday's thunderstorms started a few grass fires but most of the smoke drifted in from fires in Central Oregon.

Some area firefighters were being dispatched Monday to help with the Bell Plain Complex Fire in Garfield County near Pomeroy, which already had burned about 5,000 acres. Lightning started that fire about 6 p.m. Sunday.

A statewide call for help also was issued Monday for a 700-acre fire in Klickitat County.

Officials are asking citizens to be extra careful, as the fire risk in the region remains high.

Open burning is banned near the Walla Walla fairgrounds during the county fair and Frontier Days this week. And most fire districts in Umatilla County also have burn bans in effect.

Tri-City fire officials say the only major fire in the area was at 5 p.m. Sunday at the Kennewick Waste Management transfer station at 2627 S. Ely St.

Crews worked through the night to put out the blaze and pull smoldering debris from the building, said Kennewick Fire Marshal Mark Yaden. About 50 firefighters and 20 fire trucks from area agencies responded.

Yaden said he suspects something in the garbage started the fire, such as hot coals or a cigarette. The debris caught fire first, then the building.

But most of the evidence that would allow officials to determine the cause burned in the fire, he said.

Hot coals placed in the garbage are a common problem, said Robin Freedman, director of communications for Waste Management.

Coals can stay hot for hours or days after they are used, which is why Waste Management asks that people allow coals to cool for several days in a barbecue or metal container. Submerging the coals in water can help them cool faster. Coals should then be placed in a bag and then in a garbage can.

The Waste Management transfer station will be closed until further notice, Freedman said. The extent of the damage yet to be determined.

Garbage pick-up service is expected to remain the same, although it may be slightly later than the normal times because drivers will be traveling a little farther to dump their loads, Freedman said.

People who use that transfer station should take their garbage to the Basin Disposal transfer station, 1721 Dietrich Road in Pasco. Dumping there will be free for those who bring their free dump coupon.

The fire reported about a mile north of Energy Northwest in north Richland on Sunday was smaller than originally reported -- about 50 acres.

Rae Weil, manager of communications and external affairs for Mission Support Alliance, said the fire, which started around 10:15 p.m. from a lightning strike, was easily contained.

Hanford firefighters continued to patrol the area through the night, but no other fires occurred, she said.

Lightning started a small blaze on Red Mountain earlier Sunday, but rain doused it by the time crews arrived, said Benton 4 District Fire Chief Bill Whealan.

And five acres of grass and sagebrush burned about 10 a.m. a mile away from the Pasco-Kahlotus highway, said Chief Les Litzenberger of Franklin Fire District 3.

The Benton County 911 dispatch center received dozens of calls with fire reports after the thunderstorm began rolling through town about 8 p.m., said Richland Fire Chief Grant Baynes. The dispatchers called in extra employees to staff the phones, and Fire District 4 Commissioner A.J. Hill coordinated resources to send crews to high priority calls first.

"They did a stellar job last night," he said.

The strong winds and dust made it difficult for people to see if there was an actual fire, Baynes said. "We were swamped for a good couple of hours," he said.

w Kristi Pihl: 582-1512; kpihl@tricityherald.com