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Emergency declaration as Spokane battles deadly wildfires

Several large wildfires continue burning near Spokane, Wash. Monday morning, prompting evacuations in Spokane County, and an emergency declaration from Gov. Jay Inslee.

Both the Gray Fire near Medical Lake and the Oregon Road Fire near Elk have turned deadly, killing one person each. Together, the fires have burned more than 20,000 acres since they started Friday, Aug. 18.

Those evacuating should check for updates from the state Department of Transportation regarding road closures. As of Monday morning, I-90 was closed between Tyler and Four Lakes. Travelers were being directed to SR-904 through Cheney to get around the Gray Fire.

In Whitman County south of Spokane, the Winona Fire has burned more than 5,000 acres.

Emergency officials say it may be a while before they can fully assess the damage and start the recovery process.

"We will do everything that we can to make the case for federal assistance," said Robert Ezelle, the director of the state Military Department’s Emergency Management Division. "It has to be safe for our folks to go into the area to be able to assess the damages, build the case for the federal government, and we’ll do that as expeditiously as we possibly can.”

Gov. Inslee declared a state of emergency for the fires on Saturday. On Sunday, he warned the process will be long and tedious.

“We’ve had several fires in the state where we have not had federal assistance and, frankly, we should have," he said while visiting the area on Sunday. "We hope that we’ll be able to get it. We have no idea whether that will be possible or not.”

Washington air quality

As first responders battled the flames, air quality across the state showed evidence of the fires to the east and west.

The Sourdough Fire has now burned more than 5,600 acres in the North Cascades and is only 12% contained. There's also the Huckleberry Flats Fire near Darrington and the Blue Lake Fire southwest of Washington Pass, which have burned several hundred acres.

Seattle had the worst air quality in the world on Sunday around 6 p.m. Portland ranked third-worst at the same time. That's according to air quality technology company IQAir, which tracks air quality in 90 major cities around the world.

As of 10:30 a.m. Monday, Seattle was down to 20th on IQAir's rankings as the air quality improved thanks to onshore flow.

caption: Kayakers cross Portage Bay through heavy smoke from nearby wildfires on Sunday, August 20, 2023, in Seattle.
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Kayakers cross Portage Bay through heavy smoke from nearby wildfires on Sunday, August 20, 2023, in Seattle.
KUOW Photo/Juan Pablo Chiquiza

Air quality in Spokane remained "unhealthy" as of Monday morning.

Wildfire conditions continue into weeks ahead

Washington state officials are bracing for more wildfires as most of the state is considered to be in extreme fire danger. Washington’s forests are still trying to recover from the excessive heat that hit the region recently. More dry weather and strong winds are expected, which can lead to a drop in humidity.

That adds up to bad news, according to Vaughn Cork, a fuels specialist with the Department of Natural Resources.

"Once the humidity gets below about 30%, that's when all the mosses and lichens, and all the things that make the Western Washington forests so lush and beautiful looking, become tinder," Cork said. "Strong winds on those fuels, if we get an ignition, is very high likelihood that it's going to go big and gonna go quick.”

These hot and dry conditions will likely continue for the months ahead. That’s why officials are urging locals to follow the statewide ban on campfires managed by DNR.

Outdoor fires are also banned in King County.

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