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Teen dies in fire as windstorm punches out lights across region

Wed., June 22, 2005

A teenager was killed late Tuesday in a fire at his Suncrest home as record-breaking winds toppled trees, downed power lines and kept firefighters and emergency crews across the region scrambling.

“The wind was blowing like mad,” said Tom Peterson, who lives near the charred home at 204 W. Franklin Dr. “It looks like the whole neighborhood was out here doing something.”

Fire officials, however, were reluctant Tuesday to blame the fatal fire on the storm.

Stevens County Fire Dist. 1 Chief Keith Reilly said the cause of the fire, which was reported about 10:30 p.m., remains under investigation, and the identity of the victim was being withheld.

Elsewhere, the massive storm sparked numerous brush fires, sent trees crashing into homes and demolished cars. Roofs were blown off buildings in Airway Heights and off a school gymnasium in Spokane Valley by the heavy winds, which reached 77 mph at the Spokane International Airport. Parts of Sprague Avenue were cluttered with debris.

“You could barely stand up outside when it came through,” said National Weather Service meteorologist Todd Lericos.

Lightning and downed power lines sparked fires throughout the region, keeping firefighters scrambling from one hot spot to the next.

The heaviest sustained wind reached 77 mph about 6:30 p.m., breaking Spokane’s record for the fastest wind, said Lericos. The previous record, which was set in 1972 was 67 mph.

Avista spokeswoman Jessie Wuerst said about 28,000 of the utility’s customers across Eastern Washington and North Idaho were without power Tuesday night.

“Our crews are working through the night,” Wuerst said. “But progress is going to be very slow.”

She said workers were being slowed by darkness and by the sheer number of downed power lines across the region. The largest concentration of utility customers without power was in Post Falls, where about 8,500 customers had no electricity, she said.

In the Spokane Valley, athorities were preparing to evacuate a neighborhood near Liberty Lake but called it off after firefighters managed to contain the brush fire Tuesday evening, which was burning its way toward homes along Green Ridge Drive.

Jean Lawson, who lives on the street, said she and her husband saw the blaze near the neighborhood and tried to call 911. But lines were busy.

Fire crews soon arrived, however, and contained the fire without anyone having to be evacuated, she said.

“It’s closer than I ever want it to be,” she said.

Another close call happened in Four Lakes about 6:20 p.m. when sparks from a transformer started a grass fire. Crews from Spokane County First District 3 stopped the flames just as they reached a garage and neared a home, said deputy chief Don Crawford.

The owner of the property at 10612 S. Elenore was lucky, Crawford said, because crews happened to be in the area distributing flyers advertising an open house for the district’s new fire station.

“It was fortunate they were up there,” Crawford said. “We’d have probably had a structure going.”

Avista reported Tuesday night that about 10,000 customers in Spokane County were without power and that crews would work throughout the night to restore service.

The storm kept two commercial flights temporarily grounded at Spokane International Airport and forced two more arriving planes to divert into holding patterns until the severe weather cleared.

Airport spokesman Todd Woodard said wind gusts in excess of 80 mph were recorded. The storm delayed airport operations for about 15 minutes, Woodard said, noting that commercial traffic was back to normal by 6:30 p.m.

In Post Falls, roof trusses were blown from a home under construction in the Montrose subdivision, where lumber and sheets of plywood also were flung through yards and across streets.

In the Spokane Valley, debris cluttered Sprague Avenue and other streets. Trees were reported toppled in the Ponderosa area, and many neighborhoods were without power and phone service.

On the South Hill in Spokane, neighbors along East 11th Avenue were sad over the loss of a giant pine tree.

“It just makes me very sad,” said Dena Strasser, whose porch was crushed by the tree. “You could see it from blocks and blocks around.”

Doppler radar helped weather forecasters spot the dangerous storm moving into the region. They posted severe weather warnings.

Lericos said it began as a cluster of storms that were moving north across the Blue Mountains on Tuesday. When the storms died out, they spawned two distinct wind patterns that continued blowing toward Spokane in waves about two hours apart.


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