Update on Range 12 Fire on Rattlesnake Mountain
A backfire was set and burned over the top of Rattlesnake Mountain on Sunday night, the only way fire officials could see to keep the fire from spreading to the Hanford nuclear reservation and Benton City.
“It’s all black all the way to the top,” said John Janek, assistant fire management officer for the Mid-Columbia River National Wildlife Refuge Complex, about the northeast slope of the mountain.
The backfire worked as planned.
At about 11:30 a.m. Monday, the fire set on the northeast side of Rattlesnake Mountain burned into the Range 12 Fire that had been moving toward Hanford between highways 240 and 241 since Sunday.
“Sometimes, you fight fire with fire,” said Marc Hollen, spokesman for the incident management team that took over Monday.
The fire covered an estimated 110 square miles, up from 94 square miles Sunday evening. It started Saturday at the Yakima Training Center and advanced into Benton County on Sunday. No cause had been determined Monday.
After the fires merged and burned themselves out, firefighters continued to do mop up work.
Sometimes, you fight fire with fire.
Marc Hollen, incident management team
The section that burned is on the portion of the monument called the Arid Lands Ecology Reserve, which is closed to the public. It’s one of the largest intact shrub-steppe habitats in the Columbia Basin.
Patches of vegetation remain in the area the fire burned through that could ignite if the wind comes up or changes direction, Hollen said. But there is nothing left to burn to allow the fire to cross Rattlesnake Mountain to the contaminated area of the Hanford nuclear reservation.
Fire officials were concerned that there would be no way to control the fire if it spread over the top of the mountain and down the rugged and steep slopes of Rattlesnake Mountain, the highest point in the Mid-Columbia at 3,450 feet.
It jumped several highways.
Smoky air made visibility too poor to fight the fire from the air at the mountain, the few roads into areas like Snively Canyon are rough and primitive and the hillsides are too steep for bulldozers.
Initially, firefighters tried to burn just the top of Rattlesnake Mountain, but had to abandon the effort Sunday afternoon as it became too dangerous. The weather was windy and the wildfire was spreading toward them, Janek said.
About 9 p.m., firefighters again started setting a backfire.
It’s all black all the way to the top.
John Janek, Mid-Columbia River National Wildlife Refuge Complex
This time, they set it along the 1200-Foot Road near the bottom slope of Rattlesnake Mountain. The road parallels Highway 240 as the highway cuts across Hanford between the production portion of the 580-square-mile nuclear reservation and an area preserved as a security zone to the southwest that was between the fire and the contaminated portion of Hanford.
The burn line set was about six miles long. The south end of the burn line was down the mountain from the communication towers on its peak. It extended about six miles along the 1200-Foot Road to the Snively Canyon area.
The area west of Highway 240 as it cuts through the nuclear reservation originally was part of the security zone around the Hanford production area and has had limited human activity since World War II. The area includes Rattlesnake Mountain.
The security zone is owned by the Department of Energy but managed by Fish and Wildlife as part of the Hanford Reach National Monument.
Rattlesnake Mountain also burned in the 24 Command Fire of June 2000, which destroyed 11 homes in Benton City, scorched 165,000 acres and threatened radioactive and hazardous chemical waste facilities in central Hanford.
National monument areas were replanted. “A lot of it is gone again,” Janek said.
The Washington State Department of Transportation said that Highway 24 was open again through the burned area between its junctions with Highway 241 and Highway 240 as of about noon Monday.