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Ruin and relief

Sat., July 12, 2008

Residents survey wildfire’s damage

Doug Hawks believes it was the best three days of hard work he’s ever done.

The 66-year-old homeowner spent the July Fourth weekend cutting down trees and brush around his $600,000 view home on Park Lane, south of Dishman Hills.

Hawks’ home was standing Friday – untouched by a raging wildland fire that hopscotched over 1,200 acres a day earlier.

The wildfire destroyed at least 13 homes, including multimillion-dollar mansions with scenic views of Spokane Valley.

Other homes in the 2-square-mile area – where hilly, scenic suburbia is dotted with Ponderosa pines – were left untouched.

The fire that started Thursday afternoon was fueled by low humidity and shifting winds that hit 50 mph.

An estimated 200 people, and possibly more, fled their homes and spent the night at University High School, in RVs or with friends or relatives.

The evacuees were allowed to return before sundown Friday, but many likely will spend the weekend getting the pungent smoke smell from their homes. Some might consider creating larger “green zones” as safety barriers around their homes.

“I had trimmed down the bushes and the lower limbs – created one of those ‘green zones’ – and I guess that’s what saved me,” Hawks said Friday, as pitch-scented gray smoke hung in the air.

Instead of leaving the tree and brush waste in a pile, Hawks said he rented a chipper and turned the debris into mulch.

“We were real fortunate,” Hawks said, shaking his head and surveying the 360-degree destruction.

Many of his neighbors weren’t so lucky.

Their dream homes, along with the contents, were gone – left in ashen rubble where little was recognizable. In places, the ground and pine trees burned so hot they turned to a silver-metal gray. Windows and license plates evaporated. White vinyl fences twisted like pretzels, even as the green pastures they surrounded were untouched by the flames.

No major injuries or deaths were reported in the wildfire.

Fresh troops give local crews a break

Dozens of Spokane Valley and Spokane County fire district firefighters, who spent all Thursday night and early Friday battling the blaze, were relieved by firefighters from throughout the state – some from as far away as Vancouver and Gig Harbor, Wash.

The fresh crews patrolled dead-end roadways and private lanes inside the gated communities of Park Lane and Park Meadows, putting out hot spots, and on East 24th Avenue on the other side of the hill, where the flames claimed other homes.

Fire burned through gas lines in at least two of the residences, feeding gas into the homes for the duration of the fire, said Bill Clifford, deputy fire marshal for the Spokane Valley Fire Department.

In the ruins on Park Lane, a wild turkey and her two baby poults moved about noon Friday, appearing unharmed.

Addresses difficult to find

Losses are expected to be in the millions of dollars, and the cost of the firefight will be another whopper. Those numbers – and even a complete list of addresses of homes destroyed – still weren’t available Friday from harried fire administrators.

Large parcels, private drives and extensive damage made it difficult to determine addresses for some of the charred homes. Fire officials were using Global Positioning System gear to confirm addresses of those homes whose address numbers were in the pile of unrecognizable char.

Other addresses of destroyed homes were left on entrance posts or landscape boulders.

The fire consumed the white, eight-bedroom home owned by Karen Pring, the widow of Tim Pring, the longtime president and chief executive of Spokane’s Appleway Group of auto dealerships. Only charred concrete columns remained where the front porch stood.

Built in 1996 and assessed at nearly $2 million, the house at 2819 S. Park Lane had nine full bathrooms, an in-ground pool, a hot tub and an attached garage, according to county property records.

Also destroyed was an eight-year-old, 1,812-square-foot log cabin atop the hill, 3002 S. Park Lane, assessed at close to $400,000, and a six-year-old home at 2324 S. Park Road, assessed at $425,000.

Fire crews were still assessing the damage Friday afternoon.

Boys seen running from scene

Control of the fire was officially handed over Friday afternoon to a Level II command team that included senior officials from the Washington Department of Natural Resources. The fire burned inside the DNR’s jurisdiction and into Fire District 8 to the south.

Investigators determined the fire started near the intersection of Eastern and Moreland. No power lines were reported down in that area, Clifford said. “Right now, the cause officially is under investigation,” Clifford said during a tour of the devastated area, still closed to the public.

A witness reported seeing two boys running from the area, and investigators were attempting to locate and question them, the deputy fire marshal said.

Some communications glitches

While the evacuation of a large number of homes in Ponderosa and on South Park Road went relatively smoothly, according to fire and law enforcement officials, there were some glitches and miscommunication.

People and their pets were told to head to University High School, but a short time later evacuees were told no animals would be allowed at the Red Cross shelter. The county quickly set up an animal shelter at the Spokane County Fair and Expo Center.

The size and boundaries of the evacuation area also were changed, and it wasn’t immediately clear if the boundaries were being drawn by the Sheriff’s Office or fire officials.

“We had a real problem with misinformation getting out,” said Sheriff’s Office spokesman Sgt. Dave Reagan, specifically referring to boundaries for the evacuation area. “Incorrect boundaries were being disseminated.”

On Friday morning, fire and law enforcement officials still weren’t sure if the exact number of houses destroyed was eight or 13, or possibly more. By midday, they confirmed the number was 13 homes and an undetermined number of outbuildings.

Staff writers Parker Howell and Meghann M. Cuniff contributed to this report.

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