A three-alarm blaze gutted a wood-filled industrial building in Spokane’s West Central neighborhood on Thursday.
It was the first big fire in a day that had firefighting crews battling so many blazes one dispatcher said she had lost count.
The West Central fire began about 1 p.m. behind one of three connected buildings that form the Ugly Duck at 1725 W. Sinto Ave. The business specialized in selling doors, kitchen cabinets and other wooden materials, owner John Davis said.
“I don’t know if it’s electrical or deliberate,” Davis said. “But it’s back in a very suspicious area.”
It was the fourth time in five years the building caught fire, but fire officials said it was too early to say if arson was suspected in Thursday’s fire.
The Red Cross helped about 15 people forced to evacuate an apartment complex and rental house next door. The house reportedly sustained major water damage, rental manager Tammie Ruggles said.
The blaze, fanned by strong winds, kept fire crews busy into the evening.
Firefighters initially made it inside one of the storage buildings, but fire forced them out, Spokane Fire Chief Bobby Williams said.
The steel roof kept the heat inside while preventing crews from breaking through, Williams said. And the building’s wood products made it unsafe to go back inside.
“We’re not going to risk our firefighters’ lives in a building that’s not structurally sound,” Battalion Chief Mike Inman said. At one point, 14 of the city’s 17 fire rigs were at the blaze, Williams said.
Crews considered the fire contained after a couple of hours but let it burn out rather than fighting it from the inside.
Ruggles sat across the street from the fire for much of the day. She was in her apartment when it began and said the smoke and flames were so thick she couldn’t see out her window. The smoke made breathing difficult, she said, even outside.
“I was having to cover my face with the clothes my daughter had in the bag just to breathe,” she said. “It was crazy.”
Ruggles, her foster daughter and her cat, Mischief, will stay at a friend’s until given the OK to return home.
Ugly Duck employee Gary Braun said a neighboring business owner ran in to alert them to the fire. “It looked to me like it started in a corner at the base of a wall. It was going good when we got there,” he said.
The Ugly Duck apparently was the target of arsonists in April 2003 and again four months later, according to previous news reports. The first fire was started in a stack of wood in front of the business. The second burned $15,000 worth of cedar products. A third fire in February 2006 was called suspicious.
Braun said that in those suspicious fires, the blazes were contained to the outside.
Wind fans blazes in region
Strong winds fanned other fires, big and small, throughout the Inland Northwest.
Small fires were reported throughout Eastern Washington and North Idaho, including one that destroyed a barn full of hay north of Spokane. Meanwhile, large resource-draining blazes burned in Central Washington. Pat Humphries, spokesman for Spokane County Fire District 4, said the barn fire in his district started when a wind-snapped pine knocked down a power line.
District 4 crews responded to what was initially a grass fire on about one-tenth of an acre. But a gust blew embers onto the roof of the wooden barn about 300 feet away.
“By the time we got equipment into place, it was pretty much gone,” Humphries said. “It was like a match head going off.”
Firefighting resources in the region were strained.
“We don’t have enough people to even take all the fire calls that are coming in,” Chuck Johnson, assistant regional manager for the state Department of Natural Resources, said about 5 p.m.
Johnson said he hadn’t had time to sort through the reports to determine how many fires were burning, or how many of the reports were duplicates. In Central Washington, DNR spokesman Brett Walker said eight homes were evacuated and seven more were threatened by the 1,000-acre Cayuse fire. It started Wednesday afternoon and burned grass and timber 10 miles east of Tonasket.
The National Weather Service reported high winds in the Tonasket area, hampering the battle against the Cayuse fire.
Also in the region:
•A fire that broke out Wednesday night near Orondo in Douglas County burned 1,500 acres of grass and sagebrush in steep terrain.
•A fire that started Tuesday on Badger Mountain near East Wenatchee burned 2,000 acres.
•Firefighters battled a fire that burned 70 acres overnight near Tampico, about 20 miles southwest of Yakima.
•In wild land areas of Idaho, from the Clearwater River to the Canadian border, there were eight fires Thursday, for a total of 19 since July 2. None is larger than an acre and none is considered a major threat, officials said.
•In the Spokane area, there were reports of scattered small fires. At about 5 p.m., Spokane fire crews were tending to four garage fires in the 6100 block of North Monroe Street and North Lincoln Street caused by downed power lines.
A red-flag warning for fire conditions went into effect at noon. The warning was prompted by Thursday’s low humidity and strong winds, coming on the heels of Wednesday’s blistering heat. The National Weather Service registered gusts as high as 41 mph Thursday at the Spokane International Airport.
Greg Koch, Spokane meteorologist for the National Weather Service, said rainfall this year has been average, but cool temperatures have kept vegetation green and growing longer into the summer than in recent years. Now, that abundant vegetation is drying out. “Much of the region – and we’re talking valleys mostly – are cured and ready to burn,” while high-elevation forests are still relatively green, he said.