July 17, 2007 in City

Tonasket-area fire grows beyond 8,000 acres

By and The Spokesman-Review

Brush fires

Spokane County Fire District 9 was stretched thin Monday afternoon when two brush fires broke out north of the city.

A lawnmower sparked a seven-acre blaze at 6315 N. Thierman Road, just south of Bigelow Gulch Road. That fire raced west through dry fields and timber piles, district Chief Bob Anderson said. The call came in at about 3:20 p.m. and for nearly an hour, firefighters from District 9, District 4 and the Spokane Fire Department kept five homes safe while the fire burned nearby, he said.

Anderson requested help from the Department of Natural Resources as crews mopped up the fields and kept an eye on the still-burning slash piles, he said. The dense, dry timber in those piles kept personnel there through the evening.

Less than 10 miles away, crews set up a command post at 900 W. Hazard Road, west of Mead, to fight a five-acre fire in rough terrain, district Capt. Dan Walsh said. No structures were threatened, and the blaze seemed to have started by the riverbank, he said.

“It took a little run up the hill, but once it got to the top it slowed up a bit,” Walsh said.

The DNR also responded to that fire, which was reported just before 1:50 p.m. More than five hours later, it was just half-contained because of difficult terrain and access, Walsh said.

The Tunk Grade fire, south of Tonasket, Wash., escalated to more than 8,000 acres Monday afternoon, prompting authorities to call for state mobilization.

Meanwhile, smaller fires are burning on the Colville National Forest of northeastern Washington and Montana’s Lolo National Forest – a start to what many authorities fear could be a long fire season.

Since lightning sparked the Okanogan County blaze about 5:30 p.m. Saturday, firefighters have battled through scorching weather and low humidity. By Monday evening, 295 people were working to contain the expanding fire, said Roland Emetaz of the Central Washington Incident Management Team

Crews were protecting about 26 structures – some of them homes – mostly along state Route 20 about five miles east of Tonasket and some near the Okanogan River to the south, Emetaz said.

“So Tonasket is way out of danger at the present time,” he said Monday.

Some people have voluntarily left their homes, and the Okanogan County Sheriff’s Office gave evacuation warnings to nearly 30 households, said Sheriff Frank Rogers.

One outbuilding had been lost by late Monday, and no injuries have been reported, Emetaz said.

Most of the crews are from the state Department of Natural Resources, although some firefighters are from as far as southern Oregon, he said. The U.S. Forest Service is also assisting.

A single-engine airplane made about 50 retardant drops Sunday and continued working Monday. A helicopter and a DNR plane helped from the air Monday, and air tankers from Canada helped drop retardant Sunday, Emetaz said.

To the east, eight wildfires are now burning on the Colville National Forest, said Debbie Wilkins of the USFS. None of the fires is threatening homes, but two fires had grown to 80 acres or larger by Monday afternoon.

The Bulldog Fire, burning southwest of Bulldog Mountain in Ferry County, has burned 100 acres since it was sparked Friday by lightning. Three lightning fires east of Abercrombie Mountain in northeastern Stevens County have now combined and consumed about 80 acres, Wilkins said.

Smaller fires are also burning in the following areas: Sherlock Peak, about five miles northwest of Metaline Falls; near Baldy Mountain, about six miles north of Ione; and near the convergence of the Kettle and Columbia rivers.

The Colville National Forest is expecting to institute campfire restrictions beginning Thursday at midnight, Wilkins said.

Fires are also burning across western Montana, including a complex of fires that have burned 110 acres in the national forest seven miles west of St. Regis.

According to Nick Spang, spokesman for the Lolo National Forest, the potential for fire starts and the growth of wildfire is “unprecedented” because of the high heat and low humidity. Fire danger is now considered extreme there.

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