Emergency Management officials cleared Rose Valley residents to return to their homes late Thursday afternoon after a daylong evacuation for a wildfire that burned for a second consecutive day along Maple Hill Road.
Firefighters contained a portion of the fire, which has burned 30 to 40 acres since igniting on Wednesday.
It is included in the what the state Department of Natural Resources is calling the “March Complex,” a series of 28 Southwest Washington wildfires that have burned 349 acres so far this month.
Also included in the March Complex is the Wildwood Fire, an 85-acre blaze near Cathlamet that was 0 percent contained late Thursday afternoon but has not required evacuations, according to DNR officials. About 75 firefighters remained on that fire Thursday.
So far no injuries or damage to buildings have been reported at either the Rose Valley or Cathlamet-area fires, though there have been some close calls.
Firefighters are hoping that rain and showers forecast for Friday and Saturday help them get the fires out of under control, but they it may not be significant enough to put out some of the larger fires.
Nevertheless, “we are operating like these fires are going to continue, and we are bringing in firefighters to help manage the situation out there,” said DNR spokesman Nick Cronquist.
The state fire marshal around 10 p.m. Wednesday authorized additional state personnel and equipment be sent to help local firefighters in Cowlitz County contain the Rose Valley fire. The help arrived Thursday morning, said Lt. Byran Ditterick of Cowlitz 2 Fire & Rescue.
Crews will also be joined in Rose Valley Friday by workers from Larch Mountain, a minimal security facility that often lends inmate/workers to help dig fire containment lines, Ditterick said. They’ll work alongside crews from DNR and Cowlitz 2.
Firefighters continued to chop into smoldering tree trunks Thursday afternoon, blasting them and other vegetation with water as they worked to control hotspots and shrink the burning area. They used bulldozers and chainsaws to dig firelines to contain the Rose Valley burn.
The state sent one bulldozers, five engines, one water tender and a strike team leader to aid the agencies. DNR sent five engines and a supervisor.
“It’s just so crazy,” Ditterick said. “We’re all prepared, but not (for something like this) in March. We’ve got people in place, available and ready to hop on a rig. … It just caught everybody early.”
Ditterick praised the Cowlitz County Sheriff’s office — which has sent many of its patrol deputies and pulled others out of non-patrol duty to aid firefighters since the fires began.
The goal is to get the fire “as close to 100 percent contained as possible,” Ditterick said.
Increased levels of humidity and a chance of rain is “really helping” the situation, Ditterick said. “We are hoping that weather will help us today. Basically, we have a lot of crews out on the ground cutting (fire containment) lines,” he said.
The cause of the Rose Valley fire is still undetermined, but firefighters suspect it was spark from an unattended campfire or burn pile, Ditterick said.
“A common thread over the last three days are unattended campfires and burn piles that were picked up by the eastern winds,” he said. “There’s been rumors ... that the fires have been arson. That’s really not the case at all.”
On Wildlife Drive in Rose Valley, fires burned just up to resident Ken Smith’s property line. Smith was in Portland when he got the call.
“I was freaking out,” he said. “I thought I’d lost everything. … I knew it was right here at my front door.”
He arrived after midnight Thursday to find the fire hadn’t crossed the street to his residence, so he grabbed a few possessions and drove back to stay with his mom.
Rose Valley residents were advised it was safe to return home at around 3:30 p.m. Thursday, but they were advised to “get everything packed and ready to go” in case they needed to leave again, Ditterick said.
Cowlitz County officials enacted an emergency burn ban Wednesday evening. It prohibits all land clearing, residential and forestry-related burning until further notice.
County Fire Marshal Mike Wilson said he expects to lift the emergency ban by Saturday. It was initiated because of the unusual conditions of high temperatures, low humidity and high winds, he said.
Cronquist said the “high number of fires in this short amount of time is completely unusual for us.” He pointed to the “weather anomaly” of recent dryness, east winds and high temperatures as “what’s likely sparking the fires.”
“It just makes things easier to combust,” he said.
Additionally, “a lot of people this time of year ... are burning off their piles of debris from the (winter) weather events,” like tree branches downed by the snow, Cronquist said.
“We had so much snow three weeks ago, which people believe is moisture. But what it hits those cold temperatures, it actually saps the moisture from the fuel,” he said.
“The message to take home for the public is that fires can start no matter what type of season, so if you are doing any sorts of burning, you really need to check the weather and make sure you can burn safely.”