WENATCHEE — The Sunnyslope hills are blackened and crisscrossed by game trails and fire lines dug by dozers and hand crews over the last three days. Scattered between scorched grass and vaporized sagebrush are homes. Homes that are still standing.
The Red Apple Fire is estimated to have burned 11,000 acres between Monitor, Sunnyslope and Swakane Canyon. About 1,500 homes were issued varying degrees of evacuation notices.
Saving them required an attack on the ground and from the sky.
“Just given the nature of the location of this fire, we’ve been really concentrating on structure protection,” Ryan Rodruck, a fire spokesman, said Thursday afternoon. “We’re fighting it pretty aggressively.”
The fire was reported at 6:55 p.m. Tuesday on the 3300 block of Red Apple Road in Monitor. Authorities are investigating a possible illegal burn as the cause.
Aircraft helped crews for a couple hours Tuesday but once the sun goes down so too does air support. It’s too dangerous for them to work at night.
By Wednesday’s early hours, flames crossed Warm Springs Canyon and into Sunnyslope’s western edge. Firefighters used a method called “point protection” to stop fire from reaching homes.
Point protection is “where you just hopscotch from one to the next,” said Chief Phil Mosher, Chelan County Fire District 6 in Monitor. “As the fire passes through you do your best to knock it down and then go to the next one, and then go to the next one.”
No small feat when it’s dark and smoke hangs thick in the air and roads connecting homes wind around steep hills. “It is hard,” Mosher said. “It’s hard on crews.”
Rodruck said crews often use “anchor points” to control fire growth. An anchor point can be anything from a dozer line to a road to a terrain feature.
“When we do initial attack that’s sort of where the analysis part of it comes in is ‘OK, what geographic features can I use right away to control this fire?” Rodruck said. “Where do I need to dig a hand line? Where do I need to bring a bulldozer in?’”
But with a dense population to protect and a fast-moving fire, that wasn’t much of an option the first night.
“In this situation, it’s just house to house, basically,” Mosher said. “So, is there an anchor point? Not really. You’re just trying to manage that fire around the structures.”
About 100 fighters from Chelan and Douglas counties and two dozers held the fire back through that first early morning. He noted “it’s not an easy task by any means” for managers to coordinate the movement of firefighters as they shift along the fire line. But the next two days, Wednesday in particular, were marked by an unusually public air display.
A dozen aircraft circled the Wenatchee Valley like gears in a watch as they gulped water from its rivers. Planes skimmed the Columbia River before crowds of people lining the shores and helicopters dipped their buckets in the Wenatchee River. Once full, they traded turns dousing flames and hot spots.
“You’d have one line of those scoops coming in and they’d dump and as soon as they turn to make their angle back out I’d have a (helicopter) back in and dump too,” Rodruck said. “I’ve never seen them do that before. They were going to save this neighborhood.”
Work to secure containment lines around the fire continues.
The fire was estimated at 10% contained Friday morning, and the threat to homes appears to have passed as evacuation levels were lowered in several areas. Only Warner Canyon and the unpaved and unpopulated portion of Burch Mountain Road remain under Level 3 evacuations — leave now.
Residents of Swakane Canyon and Nahahum Canyon as of Friday were still advised to be ready to leave, a Level 2 evacuation notice.
Notable property damage thus far, aside from terrain, is limited to a few outbuildings and a transmission tower on Burch Mountain, Rodruck said. He added that crews and aircraft on Friday are expected work to keep fire out of Swakane, Warner and Nahahum canyons.