School fire crews wary and weary, but hopeful
POMEROY, Wash. – Fire managers were optimistic Friday about the progress they’ve made against the School fire, which has burned 75 square miles in southeastern Washington.
But in the evening came the wind, and it was unclear what effect it had on the blaze. Power to the nearest town, Pomeroy, and the fire camp – which is serving more than 1,700 personnel – was lost as a storm barreled through, and officials there were not reachable by phone.
Bill Aney, Umatilla National Forest fire staff officer, said by cell phone in Oregon on Friday night that he had not heard the status of the fire since the storm came through. He said plane operations were suspended because of the wind about 7:15 p.m.
Fire managers had been working the last few days to contain as much of the blaze as possible before the expected cold front came.
On the fire’s southern edge on Friday morning, Kevin Donham said crews had created a line around 95 percent of the fire. Firefighters were looking for hotspots, continuing to protect untouched structures and preventing starts outside of the line, said Donham, who is directing operations on one side of the blaze.
“We just want to make sure we get it locked down,” Donham said. “There is still a lot of potential.”
Officials said a line around the fire doesn’t mean the area is yet safe.
“There is a line drawn, but by no means is it 95 percent contained,” Aney said.
As of Friday afternoon, fire officials said the number of homes lost to the flames remained at 109. Red Cross volunteer Betsy Manring said she’s been told that eight of the residences were year-round, and most of those were not insured.
“By far, the majority of those are just gone, and by gone, I mean Mount St. Helens gone,” said Clay Barr, Garfield County’s emergency management director.
Barr, a former Pomeroy mayor, said crews have spent the last few days assessing the damage. He expected few other burned structures to be found. No homes have been lost since Sunday.
The School fire, the largest fire burning in the continental United States on Friday, started Aug. 5 and earlier was designated as the nation’s top priority blaze. Officials have said it was caused when a branch fell on a power line.
Jim and Betsy Manring, retired Pomeroy teachers, have been sent to disasters, including the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and hurricanes, by the Red Cross. They never dreamed they’d be stationed at such an event at their home.
“This is the first one ever close to home,” Betsy Manring said. “Many of these people that we’re dealing with we’ve had as students or we’ve dealt with as parents.”
The population of Pomeroy has more than doubled with all the firefighters, and residents have shown appreciation with thank you signs throughout the town.
Residents also have pulled together to help those burned from their homes – just like area farmers came out with their tractors to help quell the flames on Saturday as the blaze took off, Barr said.
“It’s a wonderful community; if there’s something wrong, they come to help,” Betsy Manring said. “It doesn’t matter what it is.”
A local volunteer group took over a closed grocery story and organized a donation effort. By Friday, the store’s shelves were packed with food, furniture, appliances and blankets.
To raise cash, the group organized a spaghetti feed and printed and sold School fire T-shirts to firefighters.”We knew a lot of people were losing their homes,” said Lisa Lund, one of the directors of the donation effort. “We were trying to figure out how we could help.”