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Fire Probe Focuses On Burn Barrel Area Roped Off, Called ‘Suspicious’ By Officials

The wildfire that stormed across the West Plains on Sunday, destroying eight homes and forcing hundreds of people to evacuate, may have started in a backyard burn barrel, witnesses say.

On Monday, state investigators examined the ground near a 55-gallon drum behind a house at 3726 N. Christensen Road. The home is owned by Delbert and LaVaughn Nuner.

Charred land fanned out to the northeast from the blackened barrel, heading in the direction the 2,000-acre wildfire spread.

Firefighters carved a trail around 95 percent of the blaze Monday and hoped to have it under control today.

Neighbors Audrey and David Blackmon said they saw a grass fire behind the Nuner home Sunday afternoon and fire engines racing to stop it.

“It had just started,” Audrey Blackmon said. Members of the Nuner family “were out there trying to stomp it out.”

Investigators who roped off the area around the barrel and surveyed the burn pattern Monday refused to say if that’s where the blaze began.

“At this point, we’re not ready to talk,” said Bill Fisher, an investigator with the state Department of Natural Resources. “It’s still totally under investigation. We’re in an area that’s suspicious to us.”

DNR spokeswoman Mary Huels said investigators are looking into several leads.

“There are the usual rumors,” said Huels, who wouldn’t elaborate. “But ‘under investigation’ is what we’re saying right now.”

Delbert Nuner declined to comment. “When DNR is through, I’m sure they’ll be willing to talk to you,” he said.

The Bowie Road blaze eventually grew rapidly, rushing through dry grass and timber with a fury and speed that startled even veteran firefighters.

The fire raced from the intersection of Bowie and Christensen roads to Riverside State Park, five miles away.

Gary Pietz, who has fought wildfires in Spokane County for more than 20 years, compared the speed of the Bowie Road blaze with Firestorm ‘91, a series of wind-driven brush and timber fires that destroyed more than 100 homes.

“This one was just as bad, if not scarier because of the swirling winds,” said Pietz, who was on the Bowie Road fire lines for 18 hours. “This one was continually changing on us. We’d have one side of a house covered, and it would jump to the other side.”

Officials cleared out scores of homes when the flames got out of control Sunday evening.

They lifted that evacuation order Monday as nearly 550 firefighters from across Washington began to beat down the fire. Crews from as far away as Pierce County rushed to Spokane to help.

Using bulldozers, picks and shovels, strike teams cleared a path around 95 percent of the blaze Monday, said Lloyd Handlos, a Department of Natural Resources spokesman.

Their efforts were aided by calmer winds and cooler temperatures.

“It died down overnight, which was great,” said Chuck Gulick of the state Department of Natural Resources fire team.

A Catalina PBY airplane equipped with retardant and three helicopters using large buckets dropped thousands of gallons of water and foam on hot spots.

Ground crews began the painstaking task of dousing smoldering stumps and fallen logs within 100 feet of each home in the area.

“We’re making some progress,” Handlos said.

Some crews may be released from duty today as firefighters begin to mop up, Handlos said.

Officials cautioned against too much optimism, however. A little wind could whip the flames back into a frenzy, they said.

Homeowners who returned to the area Monday morning were shocked at what they saw.

Flames licked to within arm’s reach of some of the 60 homes in the area before being turned aside by firefighters. Many storage sheds and barns were destroyed and one other house was slightly damaged.

Dozens of concrete slabs covered with ashes marked spots where residents used to keep their lawn mowers and snow tires. Twisted hulks of prefabricated metal buildings smoked and burned next to a few homes.

Debra and John Pfeiffer, who spent Sunday night in a Spokane hotel, found their home on Jacobs Road basically unscathed Monday morning.

Everything around it, though, including their small barn and pump house, was destroyed.

Trees smoked in their yard and stumps were aflame as the couple and their daughter, April, began cleaning up.

“See that line?” said Debra Pfeiffer, pointing to where the fire burned to within five feet of the front of her house. “Same way in the back. We feel well-blessed at this point. Our house is still standing.”

Tim and Lisa Anderson, who live on Garfield Road, spent a sleepless night wetting down their house with a garden hose as flames skittered across a ridge above their home of six years.

“It was real spooky, real powerful,” Tim Anderson said. “Those trees just roared when they went up.”

The Andersons’ neighbors weren’t as lucky. Their house burned to the ground after flaming debris landed on the wood shake roof.

“It turned into a hot spot on the roof that he just couldn’t put out,” said Tim Anderson, adding that the only thing left of his friend’s home was the swimming pool.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photos


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