Cold Creek wildfire grows to 42,000 acres. Rattlesnake Mountain scorched in blaze

Benton County deputies assist with Cold Creek wildfire

Benton County Sheriff Office released this short video of a small airplane dropping water on the Cold Creek wildfire in the area of SR 240 and SR 24. Photo courtesy Franklin Fire District 3.
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Benton County Sheriff Office released this short video of a small airplane dropping water on the Cold Creek wildfire in the area of SR 240 and SR 24. Photo courtesy Franklin Fire District 3.

Firefighters are trying to stop a fire that crested Rattlesnake Mountain Friday morning north of Richland.

The Cold Creek Fire had scorched 41,920 acres by late Friday afternoon and blackened much of the north side of the mountain, according to Ron Fryer, public information officer at the incident command center for the fire.

The fire started shortly before 3:30 p.m. Thursday.

The fire was estimated to be about 60 percent contained by 4 p.m. Friday, up from 10 percent Friday morning, Fryer said.

He was hoping for 100 percent containment by Sunday.

“Mother Nature has been really kind to us,” he said.

Cooler temperatures and lighter winds were helping firefighters contain the fire, he said.

It was burning Friday afternoon on the northwest end of Rattlesnake Mountain, both on private and federal land.

Rattlesnake Mountain’s sensitive ecology

Much of the smoke that could still be seen Friday afternoon was from firefighters burning vegetation on the shrub steppe landscape to destroy fuel that would feed the fire and help contain it.

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The east face of Rattlesnake Mountain still smolders Friday morning in this aerial photo taken from about 4,000 feet that also shows the Yakima River just upriver of the Wanawish Dam. Bob Brawdy Tri-City Herald

Firefighters were trying to keep the damage to environmentally and culturally sensitive areas to a minimum, Fryer said. They were using existing roads and bulldozer lines as much as possible to keep their footprint on the land as small as possible.

Rattlesnake Mountain, the highest area in the Mid-Columbia, has been designated a traditional cultural property under the National Historic Preservation Act and has long been used as a sacred site by Northwest tribes. Its peak has an elevation of about 3,500 feet.

The north side of Rattlesnake Mountain is part of the federally owned Hanford Reach National Monument and is in a section of the monument closed to the public called the Arid Lands Ecology Reserve, or ALE.

It has had little human disturbance since World War II when it was taken over by the federal government as part of the security zone around the Hanford nuclear reservation, which produced plutonium for nuclear weapons through the Cold War.

The mountain has native grasses; sagebrush, key habitat for some bird species; and some rare plants, including two types of milkvetch, Piper’s daisy and gray cryptantha.

Usually by the end of July elk on the reserve have moved high on the mountain where green grass can still be found.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the monument, has been working to finalize a plan to allow some public access to the top of the mountain.

Hanford and homes not threatened

The fire is not threatening homes or the production area of Hanford, Fryer said. But some people in north Richland were reporting that ash from the fire had fallen there.

Some of the firefighters that reported first to the fire on Thursday were being sent home Friday afternoon to get some rest. A further reduction in crews was expected Saturday.

Rattlesnake Mountain as seen Friday from Highway 240. Courtesy Washington state Department of Ecology

The Washington state Department of Natural Resources said Friday morning the fire grew from 8,000 acres to 14,000 acres overnight because of persistent high winds.

It was being fought at various times with airplanes, helicopters, bulldozers and fire engines.

But the flames kept jumping the fire lines, Benton County Fire District 2 reported.

The Mid-Columbia was under a red flag fire alert Thursday because of high winds in the afternoon and evening. Weather conditions had calmed Friday morning.

The cause of the fire had not been determined Friday, but officials suspected it was man made.

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A Washington Department of Transportation map shows where a fire closed state highways on Thursday. Washington Department of Transportation

Highway 240 from Route 10 near Richland to the Vernita Bridge closed Thursday afternoon and evening because of the nearby fire, but had reopened by Friday morning.

Highway 24 also was closed from Highway 240 to the Silver Dollar Cafe Thursday but reopened Thursday evening.

4th fire on Rattlesnake in recent decades

The fire started Thursday afternoon as two small fires near Highway 24 burned together, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The fire burned through wildland west of Highway 240 on ALE, which is west of Highway 240. The production portion of the Hanford nuclear reservation is on the east side of Highway 240.

The fire jumped the highway to the main portion of the Hanford Site at one point, but was quickly put out there, according to Hanford officials.

Benton County Fire 2 had put in a bulldozer line on the south side of Rattlesnake Mountain off of the monument earlier this month as a precaution, should a fire jump the top of the mountain.

Rattlesnake Mountain as seen from Highway 240 just northwest of the Tri-Cities on Friday. Courtesy Washington state Department of Ecology

Firefighters from Benton County fire districts, Tri-Cities and Walla Walla area crews, U.S. Fish and Wildlife and the Bureau of Land Management were all helping in the effort to get it under control. More than 200 firefighters have been assigned.

No firefighters have been injured.

Hanford firefighters initially responded to the fire. The Department of Energy owns the ALE Reserve, although Fish and Wildlife manages it.

The last major fire on Rattlesnake Mountain was the Range 12 Fire in summer 2016, which burned 35,000 acres. Fires also burned there in 2000 and 2007.

Senior staff writer Annette Cary covers Hanford, energy, the environment, science and health for the Tri-City Herald. She’s been a news reporter for more than 30 years in the Pacific Northwest.
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.