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YAKIMA, Wash. -- The column of smoke rising from the Table Mountain complex between Cle Elum and Ellensburg on Wednesday evening was reminiscent of the ash cloud from the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption.

Firefighters expect the three fires in the area to merge into one - a fire described by one firefighter as a monster.

Teams spent the afternoon going from house to house. Those they could save get a green ribbon, those marked with a red one can't be safely defended and will be written off.

Large plumes of ash are being carried in all directions, but the ash also carries sparks and at one point the fire was moving so fast it was jumping a mile ahead of itself. Eight-inch chunks of burning bark were falling 6 to 7 miles away into Mission Ridge.

Thick smoke from central Washington wildfires kept residents indoors in some communities Wednesday and forced schools to relocate weekend sporting events, as the advancing flames prompted more evacuations (see evacuation list) and the closure of a major highway.

A Level 3 evacuation notice was being activated for Squilchuck and Mission Ridge Roads from the Wenatchee Heights Road south to and including the Mission Ridge Ski Area.

Thousands of firefighters are battling dozens of wildfires that were sparked by lightning earlier this month up and down the east slope of the Cascades. Some of the blazes are small and in remote areas, but hundreds of residents have been evacuated or warned to be ready to flee near fire large fire complexes burning in the region.

In Kittitas County, authorities ordered new evacuations northwest of Ellensburg due to a handful of fires that had grown to cover 11,590 acres, or 18 square miles, on Wednesday.

Firefighters continued to battle several fires in steep, rough terrain on the Table Mountain Complex. The highest priority fires are: First Creek, Lion's Rock, Diamond Head and County Line.

As the inversion lifted Tuesday, fire activity increased, creating smoke columns that can be seen by the surrounding communities of Liberty, Cle Elum, and Ellensburg.

In the Wenatchee area, nearly 2,000 firefighters were working to contain more than a dozen fires, the largest of which had blackened nearly 14,000 acres, or about 22 square miles.

The wildfires burned close to U.S. Highway 97 on Wednesday, prompting the Washington state Department of Transportation to close a 27-mile stretch of the highway on Blewett Pass. The agency did not say when the highway might reopen.

Dozens of other roads and trails were closed up and down the region.

Overall, fires were burning across some 88 square miles of dry forest, brush and grass in a part of the state that hasn't seen significant rainfall in weeks.

State officials again warned of hazardous air quality in Ellensburg and Wenatchee from thick smoke, advising residents to remain indoors, limit physical activity and keep doors and windows open, and noted that conditions are not expected to improve for several days.

The National Weather Service continues an air stagnation advisory for the eastern foothills of the Cascades and for the Clarkston area of Whitman County.

According to the Department of Ecology, the Wenatchee Complex Fire pushed air quality into the hazardous zone for the first time since the state began monitoring small particle pollution including smoke. The smoke hazard recorded at Wenatchee has been about three times higher than any other readings recorded by Washington state monitors since the 1980s.

The thick smoke forced Central Washington University to move its Saturday football game against Azusa Pacific University from Ellensburg to Bothell, in what would have been the school's home opener. A Friday night high school game between Wenatchee and Eastmont also was moved to Moses Lake.

Get Wenatchee Complex fire updates on the fire information Facebook page

The Red Cross has re-activated the emergency shelter in Wenatchee at the Seventh Day Adventist Church on the corner of 5th and Western.

An emergency animal shelter has been opened at the Chelan County Fairgrounds for large domestic animals. Small animals may be sheltered at the Countryside Veterinary Clinic, 405 Ohme Road

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