August 12, 1996 in Nation/World

Fire Forces Evacuations Wind Gusts Push Blaze To Edge Of Riverside Park

Kim Barker And Ward Sanderson S Staff writer

A wind-fanned West Plains wildfire raced to the edge of Riverside State Park on Sunday, destroying at least two homes and causing evacuations of hundreds of residents west of Spokane.

By late evening, more than 1,400 acres of parched grass, brush and timber had been charred from Deep Creek Canyon west of Airway Heights to within a couple of miles of the Spokane River.

“Once the smoke clears, it could be as large as 3,000 acres,” said Bill Berrigan, a state Department of Natural Resources spokesman.

Firefighters, however, were confident the fire wouldn’t cross the river.

Washington Department of Natural Resources investigators were on the scene late Sunday, but had not yet determined the cause of the fire. DNR fire crews from across the state were expected to join the battle today.

The American Red Cross set up a shelter for 400 evacuated residents at Harmon Community Center in Airway Heights.

The blaze threatened dozens of homes - racing down hillsides, chewing up brush and pine trees, leaping across rural roads.

It started small, about 2 p.m., near Bowie and Christensen roads. It burned about 80 acres by 5 p.m., sending black thunderheads of smoke hundreds of feet in the air. At 6 p.m., the fire exploded - racing about three miles, pushed by powerful wind gusts toward Riverside State Park.

No life-threatening injuries were reported. Three people were treated for smoke inhalation at Deaconess Medical Center and released.

The blaze created a huge plume of smoke visible from as far away as Coeur d’Alene.

By nightfall, the fire was still advancing to the east, closing in on homes in the Seven Mile Road area.

At least four rural neighborhoods were evacuated, although some people refused to leave. They grabbed hoses and fought the flames from their yards and roofs.

Roads turned into parking lots as frightened residents watched and waited.

“We have no idea how our house is right now,” said Cindy Graham, watching from the corner of Rambo and Euclid. “It’s real scary.”

Richard Corpuz said he called 911 about 2 p.m. after seeing smoke as he cut his grass near Bowie Road northwest of Airway Heights.

“When you’re sitting right here, your stomach starts to turn looking at that,” Corpuz said later. “There’s a lot of homes over there.”

“You just get nervous and feel so sorry, for whoever’s in its path,” said Mildred Owmby, watching from her home about one mile south of the fire, between Christensen and Rambo roads. “The wind’s terribly strong, and the grass is so dry.”

Cindy Graham and her 13-year-old daughter, April, smelled smoke about 2 p.m. They left three sprinklers running in the yard.

April jumped on the family’s horse, Jasmine, and rode to the stables three miles away. Cindy Graham grabbed the four dogs.

When the two tried to return home, they faced a law enforcement blockade.

Cindy Graham waited for her husband and other daughter, who were in Spokane watching the movie “Independence Day.”

“We built it 20 years ago,” Cindy Graham said of her threatened home. “We had just gotten married. We’ve stayed there ever since.”

About 200 firefighters marshaled by DNR and Spokane County Fire District 10 fought the blaze, aided by 40 engines, four bulldozers, four air tankers and two helicopters.

Fanned by gusts up to 33 mph, the flames quickly spread, jumping Bowie and rampaging north and east.

“The fire is making a run on us,” said firefighter Tim McLain.

By early evening, the wind died down. It was blowing about 11 mph at 11 p.m., the National Weather Service said.

The fire trapped an ambulance, state troopers and three deputies from the Spokane County Sheriff’s Department responding to a sick woman Sunday evening. Firefighters rescued them, but further details were unavailable.

Homes in the area were evacuated, but residents didn’t go far. They parked their cars and pickup trucks on the side of the road, then watched flames shoot over the tops of pine trees.

“Oh my God,” said Angie Bleeker, standing next to a trailer full of llamas, goats, a mini-burro and a cow. “That’s probably somebody’s home. Somebody’s home I know.”

Farther east, at Riverside State Park near Seven Mile, rangers were setting backfires shortly before dusk.

“It’s coming this way!” warned Ranger Carl Fish, as he ran to the fire line with a shovel.

Standing nearby, Cinnamon Alnutt watched the sun turn the color of blood.

“It’s the reddest I’ve ever seen … really red, eerie red,” she said.

Bill Leonetti battled to save his home, on the 7200 block of North Garfield, before climbing in his recreational vehicle to search for firefighters.

“I’ve got a swimming pool in the back of my house,” he said, pleading for help. “I’ve got the water to save my house.”

A scout team followed Leonetti home, and the wind quickly spiraled the fire around the house, with flames shooting 60 feet high.

Leonetti fought back, armed only with a garden hose. With tears in his eyes, he watched his shed - filled with saddles and hay - burn to the ground. But his home was saved, thanks in part to the reservoir of water in the pool.

Jennifer Wilhelm and her young daughter waited at Nine Mile and Garfield roads until they were forced to leave by authorities shortly before nightfall.

Wilhelm was stunned when her sister and brother-in-law, Jodi and Skip Nason, used a back road to brave the blaze and return to a home they’re renting out.

They went to find two children reportedly still in the house. Telephone lines in the area were down. The Nasons stayed to fight the fire for hours.

Skip Nason walked in the door, just before 11 p.m, after setting up sprinklers around his property.

“He got run out by the fire,” Wilhelm said. “All the homes around him are gone.”

The fire echoes others in recent years.

A July 1994 blaze scorched 680 timbered acres in Riverside State Park. Firestorm ‘91 killed two people, destroyed 114 homes and burned 35,000 acres.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Photos (1 Color); Map of path of fire

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