August 12, 2005 in City

Fire burns 109 homes

By The Spokesman-Review
The Spokesman-Review photo

A P-3 tanker plane drops fire retardant over a spot fire that erupted across from the main Harker Canyon fire on Thursday afternoon. The fire, located seven miles northeast of Davenport and burning between 1,500 and 2,000 acres, threatened about 30 homes along Moccasin Bay, on the south shore of the Spokane Arm of Lake Roosevelt.
(Full-size photo)

The latest count of buildings burned by the School fire in southeastern Washington is double what fire bosses had previously estimated.

“I’ve got some real bad news on the School fire; we’ve confirmed 109 homes now that have been lost,” as well as 106 outbuildings, said John Townsley, a spokesman for the Interagency Coordination Center, a Portland-based agency that helps coordinate the work of federal and state firefighting agencies.

But while by far the most destructive, that 48,000-acre wildfire is only one of six burning in the state, prompting Gov. Christine Gregoire to declare a state of emergency Thursday.

“We’re facing a siege of wildfires across our state,” said the governor. “We’re not into the worst of the (fire) season yet, and we’re seeing all this come to a crescendo.”

Fires are raging in eight counties, she said, straining the resources of fire crews brought in from as far away as California and Arizona.

“We’re really calling on every resource that we have right now,” she said in Olympia.

By declaring an emergency, the state can seek federal aid for firefighting costs and damages to privately owned crops and property. State agencies are also free to close campgrounds and parks due to fire danger.

The order also sets the stage for calling out the National Guard to help fight fires, a step that Gregoire said she’ll take if the fires grow much worse.

Major Gen. Timothy Lowenberg, head of the state’s military department, said that Guard troops are ready with water-dropping Blackhawk helicopters, Air National Guard crews to set up fire camps, and two 500-personnel quick-response units. But he said the ground troops would first need fire training in Yakima, which means a five- to six-day lag time between activation and getting troops on fire lines.

The School fire alone is being battled by some 1,662 firefighters and support workers, with 145 fire engines, 14 bulldozers, 42 water tenders and eight helicopters. The firefighting cost so far: $3.6 million. One injury had been reported: an ATV rider who suffered a shoulder injury on a steep slope.

Townsley warned that the estimates for buildings burned by the School fire will surely change as the scope of the fire becomes more clear. Fire planners are visiting as many burned structures as possible, he said, then checking their observations against Garfield County tax records, to determine which charred remains are homes – houses, cabins, mobile homes and trailers – and which are outbuildings, like barns and sheds.

In addition to those structures already lost, another 176 were in danger Thursday, including 120 homes, Townsley said. Most of those were on the intensely burning south edge of the fire, where the flames have been fueled by standing- and downed insect-killed timber.

Despite the dire message from Olympia, managers on the scene of the fire said Thursday that crews had made significant progress.

“We’re looking good,” said John Heckman, fire behavior specialist, after a community meeting in Dayton, Wash. “I have become more optimistic that we will be able to catch the fire somewhere in the range it is right now.”

Still, fire officials warned that winds are expected to increase tonight and could make it more difficult to hold the fire line.

The fire has charred private, state and Umatilla National Forest land.

“There were some areas that had been absolutely nuked” and some that were barely touched, said Bob Anderson, the chief for Spokane County Fire District 9, who is serving as incident commander for the School fire.

The fire is burning immediately around Camp Wooten State Park, a popular location for school groups and youth camps. Anderson said planes and ground crews on Thursday prevented buildings there from burning.

Jennie Dickenson, executive director of the Dayton Chamber of Commerce, said she hopes that the area can be used to show camp visitors how land recovers from fire. But she fears the fire may keep some people away.

“A burned-out landscape will be unattractive to some,” Dickenson said.

Kelly Allen, a lawyer from Spokane who owns 1,500 acres near Dayton, said he saw last Friday night where the School fire started near his land. Authorities have said it started with a broken power line.

“We were the first ones to get hit by this thing,” Allen said Thursday. “I tried to find help and look for help. I was fortunate that four or five farmers I didn’t even know came up the road.”

Allen said he and the others used trucks designed for hauling water to cattle to stop the fire from crossing Maloney Mountain Road. In the process, he said, he burned the tires on his pickup.

“If it wasn’t for these guys coming up to my place, that fire would have been heading to Dayton a long time ago,” Allen said. “I have some new best friends.”

Gregoire, who flew over the School Fire on Sunday, said that she considered declaring an emergency then. She described watching from the air as a rural home went up in flames, and watching trees explode.

“It just shows you how vulnerable those firefighters are,” she said. “It was shocking.”

State officials spent much of late winter fearing a bad drought year, only to see heavy rains start on the spring day the state declared a drought emergency. Gregoire said that rain, while welcome, spurred growth of underbrush, providing a lot of low-growing fuel for the current blazes.

She said she was stunned by the massive smoke plume from the School fire.

“It was reminiscent of Mount St. Helens,” the governor said.

Washington State Patrol Chief John Batiste said that fire season will continue through mid-September or beyond.

“This is the worst fire season that we’ve had since the summer of 2001,” he said.

In addition to the School fire, others burning in Washington are:

“The Harker Canyon fire, northeast of Davenport, in Lincoln County, which has threatened 30 structures. Although the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center has said it burned 840 acres, crews on the scene have given estimates as high as 2,000 acres. Some 310 firefighters and support crews, three helicopters, 21 fire engines and seven bulldozers were battling the blaze.

“The Dirty Face fire, on the north shore of Lake Wenatchee, about 18 miles northwest of Leavenworth. Fire had burned 1,150 acres by Thursday, but was about 70 percent contained. About 440 firefighters assigned to this fire.

“Lick Creek fire, about eight miles north of Cle Elum. This fire covered 735 acres, but was 90 percent contained and was dying down Thursday.

“Burnt Bread fire, about 21 miles southeast of Tonasket, in Okanogan County. It was 1,356 acres and 75 percent contained Thursday, and was being fought by about 345 firefighters.

“McLane fire, about 20 miles northeast of Richland. It was 4,000 acres, 40 percent contained Thursday.

Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email