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Originally published July 29, 2013 at 9:42 PM | Page modified July 29, 2013 at 11:15 PM

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Spreading Central Wash. fires force evacuations

Hundreds are battling a wildfire that’s destroyed several homes south of Wenatchee, while another blaze outside of Goldendale also continues to grow. With lightning in the forecast this week, officials say the fire season could worsen quickly.

Seattle Times staff reporters

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WENATCHEE — While two major fires continued to jump and spread across Central Washington timber- and rangelands Monday, forcing evacuations of dozens of potentially endangered homes, regional fire planners braced for extreme weather that could spark more blazes in the Northwest’s bone-dry wild lands.

“We’re at high risk right now,” said Carol Connolly, spokeswoman for the Portland-based Northwest Interagency Coordination Center, the region’s nerve center for wildfire planning and intelligence.

“We’re expecting another large lighting storm to pass through, and with all the dry fuels on the ground, there’s an ignition source,” Connolly said. “Our weather models are showing elevated probabilities for large fires.”

The agency’s “Seven-day Significant Fire Potential” report — a predictive model based on weather forecasts, moisture levels and other conditions — forecasts “a high risk event looming” for this week in parts of Washington and Oregon.

Already, two big wildfires are raging in Washington: the Colockum Tarps fire, burning near Wenatchee, and the Mile Marker 28 fire spreading outside of Goldendale in Klickitat County.

In all, three properties and several outbuildings have been destroyed in the blaze near Wenatchee, but authorities said Monday neither fire had caused major injuries or claimed any lives.

With lightning storms predicted for Central Washington on Tuesday and Wednesday, the fire risk for wildlands stretching from the North Cascades to the Columbia River and beyond will jump significantly, authorities predict.

Several parts of Oregon face similar threats from dry-lighting strikes in the week ahead, raising the risk level in that state, too.

Yet, even with the potential danger, fire planners say the Northwest’s wildfires so far have been fairly typical this season.

“This is about what we’d expect this time of year,” Connolly said. “We’re right in the heart of fire season.”

As of Monday, the Colockum Tarps fire — which ignited about 15 miles south of Wenatchee early Saturday and spread quickly, pushed by erratic winds and fueled by tinder-dry grass, brush and undergrowth — has devoured more than 25,000 acres.

In all, about 300 fire personnel at the scene Monday had the blaze about 5 percent contained, fire incident spokesman Rick Isaacson said.

The blaze has destroyed three primary residences and several outbuildings, including two state Fish and Wildlife structures at a work center along the Columbia River.

The fire also has forced evacuation of at least 65 residences, though several people had been allowed back into their homes as of Monday afternoon after the fire swept through and left the homes behind, officials said.

As the fire continued to burn through grasses and sage, spreading southwest along the Columbia near the community of Malaga, several more homeowners were warned the blaze could be headed their way, Isaacson said.

“Right now, these kinds of fuels burn very quickly,” Isaacson said. “The grass and brush ignites and burns up immediately; then the fire keeps running on, leaving behind ash and hot spots.”

Red Cross officials reported one family of four, forced by the fire to evacuate, spent Sunday night at a makeshift shelter in Wenatchee’s Seventh-day Adventist Church. Family members dined on a meal from KFC while awaiting word of their residence’s fate, and were allowed to return home on Monday.

Washington’s other major blaze — the Mile Marker 28 fire — continued to burn across more than 20,000 acres of timberland and shrub brush about 15 miles northeast of Goldendale along Highway 97 in Klickitat County.

As of Monday, about 1,200 fire personnel were fighting that blaze, which ignited Wednesday morning. Fire crews so far have evacuated 69 homes from among 144 residences, outbuildings and other endangered structures in the area of the fire. Several nearby areas were put on notice that more evacuations could be coming.

“No structures have been destroyed or damaged yet,” said Lauren Durocher, a representative of the interagency fire command. “We’ve been lucky so far.”

In all, firefighters had about one-quarter of the fire contained early Monday, Durocher said, with crews working to establish firelines on the ground while dousing the blaze with water and fire retardant by air.

Fire investigators are still trying to determine causes for both fires, officials said Monday.

In another incident, officials announced Monday that about 80 firefighters near North Bend had taken control of an 18-acre blaze at the base of Mount Si. That fire — a suspicious blaze that didn’t harm any homes or people — is now 75 percent contained, authorities said.

“The only thing that’s been released so far is that it was human-caused,” Washington Department of Natural Resources spokesman Seth Barnes said. “Investigators are still following up on some leads.”

Along with the two major Washington fires, seven other big blazes were burning in parts of Oregon, though none had caused injuries or damaged buildings, officials said.

According to the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center’s seasonal outlook, fire planners predict a drier-than-typical Northwest summer running into early fall. Rains in late June likely helped to delay the fire season this year, at least compared with the head start it got during last year’s record-breaking drought conditions.

“The fires we’re seeing now may be a little ahead of the game from where we were last year,” Connolly said. “But they’re not unusual, if you look at things historically.”

Lewis Kamb: lkamb@seattletimes.com or 206-652-6611. Twitter: @lewiskamb

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