Pierce County fire crews' resources strained as Sumner Grade Fire continues to burn | KNKX

Pierce County fire crews' resources strained as Sumner Grade Fire continues to burn

Sep 10, 2020

A wildfire that has consumed a hillside overlooking the Sumner Valley in East Pierce County continues to burn. The Sumner Grade Fire, which started Monday evening, has burned an estimated 800 acres in the Bonney Lake area. It’s destroyed four homes.

Meanwhile, a number of separate brush fires and structure fires have flared up nearby, putting an unprecedented strain on fire districts’ pool of resources.

“The entire system is completely taxed and we are not getting nearly the support that we need,” said Dina Sutherland, a spokesperson for East Pierce Fire and Rescue.

Sutherland said helicopters have dropped water on the flames over the past two days, but air support isn’t enough.

“We really need more boots on the ground and apparatus out there to help battle this fire,” she said. “But we are making do with what we have. It is what it is.”

The fire is about 20 percent contained, though crews are working to acquire a more accurate assessment of the magnitude using aerial photographs.

Nearly 7,000 residents have been told to evacuate the area. Sutherland says less wind and cooler temperatures have helped firefighters control the blaze in recent days, but higher winds or warmer temperatures could quickly change that. The department is evaluating whether it’s safe to start letting some people return home.

“We have a lot of hot spots that have proven to flare up quickly, and we don't want that to get out of our control,” Sutherland said.

A helicopter makes a water drop, Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020, on a hotspot of a wildfire burning in Bonney Lake.
Credit Ted S. Warren / The Associated Press

Sshe says this is an unusual amount of fire for the western part of the state.

“What’s really caught us off guard is, these types of fires, you see them more on the east side of the mountains,” she said. “They deal with this almost on a daily basis. Here, it’s, we’ve never seen anything quite like this in the magnitude and the frequency of the fires going on right now. We can’t even catch our breath before another one starts.”

Neighboring Orting Fire and Rescue has assisted East Pierce Fire with responding to other calls, unrelated to the wildfire and brush fires.

Earlier this week, a short drive away from the Sumner Grade Fire, crews battled a blaze in Graham that forced more evacuations and destroyed at least eight homes.

The Pierce County fire marshal announced Thursday that the cause was ruled an accident. Strong winds blew a tree down into power lines that caused dry vegetation to catch fire. Graham Fire and Rescue released a video explaining the cause in more detail.  

Crews were able to gain control of the Graham fire and, by Wednesday, lifted the Level 3 evacuation notice and allowed people back to their properties, according to the county news release.

Meanwhile, areas throughout the region are experiencing poor air quality as a result of smoke, and it’s expected to worsen this evening.

Mike McFarland with the National Weather Service in Seattle says winds are expected to switch to a light on-shore flow, coming in off the ocean.

“It’s certainly helpful to close your windows,” McFarland said. “If you’re an asthmatic like me, you don’t go jogging, take it easy, and you’ll have an excuse here for a couple of days not to be doing a lot of exercise.”

Unhealthy air quality means people should limit time spent outdoors and avoid strenuous activities while outside — especially people in sensitive groups, like those with respiratory ailments.

Smoke from Eastern Washington will continue moving through the region this evening, before the wind shifts and brings it from Oregon. Some improvement could come our way this weekend.

KNKX's Ed Ronco contributed to this report.