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Storm whips through region

University High students had to fight the hail, rain and lightning on the way home from school on Friday after showers filled the intersection at 26th Avenue and Pines Road. 
 (Steve  Thompson / The Spokesman-Review)
University High students had to fight the hail, rain and lightning on the way home from school on Friday after showers filled the intersection at 26th Avenue and Pines Road. (Steve Thompson / The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane County Fire District Chief Bob Anderson couldn’t confirm that lightning started a fire at the Beau Rivage apartment complex on Upriver Drive on Friday. But Joe LaPorte is willing to wager that it did.

“I was on my computer doing my homework,” LaPorte said. “I saw that it started raining real hard, and I went to the window to watch. That’s when I saw a flash, heard a loud snap, the building shook, then I saw smoke coming from my bedroom,” he said.

Not everyone in the Inland Northwest had a day as dramatic as those at Beau Rivage, but Airway Heights resident and Fairchild Air Force Base personnel discovered their own excitement after 4 p.m.

At least one tornado touched down on the west side of Fairchild Air Force Base, according to an official. There were no reports of damage or injuries.

“We got lucky,” said Lt. Ethan Stoker. The experience was dramatic nonetheless.

Stoker said there was probably an inch-and-a-half to 2 inches of hail about the size of dimes already on the ground when the tornado hit. Emergency sirens sent base personnel into response mode.

“We had a lot of wind, but you almost couldn’t hear it because there was so much noise from the hail against the metal roof,” Stoker said.

Friday’s storm also forced the temporary shutdown of flights leaving nearby Spokane International Airport. Due to the tornado report, officials evacuated the air-traffic control center, from 4:27 p.m. to 4:42 p.m., said airport spokesman Todd Woodard.

“It was very fortuitous time because we had no arrivals at that time,” Woodard said. “The weather only affected three departures.”

Woodard said a quarter-inch of rain and hail piled up on the runways making arrivals and departures impossible regardless of any tornado.

Meanwhile, flooding throughout the city of Spokane and power outages to thousands of residents left Avista power crews scrambling.

The Weather Service issued a small stream flood warning for Kootenai and Spokane counties, which will stay in effect through this morning. Weather officials said the region can expect the scattered rain showers and thunderstorms to continue through Sunday.

The totals from recent days’ storms have been impressive: Airway Heights received .76 inches on Friday alone, while Felts Field received just shy of an inch in the 24-hour period ending at 5 p.m. Friday. Outlying communities, from Sprague to Plaza in south Spokane County, received 2 to 3 inches of rain, most of which fell on Friday, according to the National Weather Service.

The Spokane Police Department and Spokane County Sheriff’s Office reported street flooding that hampered drivers and a few accidents attributed to the wet roads. Idaho State Patrol trooper Rachel Burke reported no problems despite the heavy rain.

A five-vehicle crash on Interstate 90 closed down the westbound lanes near Evergreen Road for nearly an hour early Friday afternoon. Washington State Patrol Sgt. Eric Koch said he wasn’t sure what initially caused the crash at 12:40 p.m. between Pines and Evergreen roads, but said the highway was slick with water, which likely exacerbated the pileup.

As for lighting strikes, they were responsible for several fires and damaged transformers on Friday.

“It’s been real busy,” said Avista spokeswoman Debbie Simock. “The area that’s been hit the hardest has been the northwest part of town. We had four transmission lines out of our Waikiki station that went out.”

Most other outages were smaller and scattered across Avista’s service area. At one point about 7,500 customers were without power. “What we’ve seen so far has all been lightning related. We’re not seeing many individual outages because there doesn’t seem to be much wind associated with the storm.” At midnight, about 1,300 customers remained without power, according to another Avista spokeswoman, Robin Dunlap. Some 450 of those were in the Spokane area, 780 in the Colville area and 60 around Davenport. Dunlap said all available crews were working to get the power restored but didn’t have a timeline for when those repairs would be finished.

A lightning-caused fire burned a hole through the roof of a house near the top of Carnahan Hill at 2:30 p.m., said Spokane County Fire District 8 acting chief Dan Blystone.

Damage to the house was limited to the roof and one upstairs room, Blystone said. Five engines from Fire District 8 and the Spokane Valley Fire Department responded to the fire.

Traffic lights on Division went out from Cozza Drive to Hawthorne Road, said Marlene Feist, Spokane’s public affairs officer. They were back on by mid-afternoon. “We did have flashing signals as far south as Mission and Division and Ruby and Division, where they come together,” Feist said.

As for the apartment fire on Upriver Drive, Chief Anderson said four apartments suffered serious fire damage. Located on the border of Spokane city and county, the fire at the Beau Rivage apartments drew a combined response of 16 fire crews to the scene.

Clifford Gilbert, a service and maintenance worker at the complex, had just finished work in apartment building D when the lighting hit nearby building E just 15 yards away. Several years ago, Gilbert said he saw lightning hit a tree in which was 50 yards away from him.

Before the fire really got going, Gilbert knocked on all 12 apartment unit doors to make sure no one was left inside. There were no reported injuries as a result of the fire which started just before 2 p.m.

After approximately 30 minutes of firefighting, the job became even more difficult when a heavy downpour of rain made the roof more slick while lightning strikes in the area increased.

“We had to continue with our normal efforts because if we’d stopped and waited for a break in the weather, we would have lost this entire building,” Anderson said.

Red Cross public affairs officer Greg Bade said the agency only needed to provide overnight living arrangements for one man; roughly other six people who were displace were able to secure temporary housing.

“The manager of the complex has told us that he’ll be able to find new apartments in that complex for those who were burned out,” Bade said. “That’s a pretty quick turnaround.”

Beau Rivage has a total of 228 apartment units spread through 27 buildings.