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Firefighters gain ground

Mon., July 14, 2008

‘Red flag’ conditions possible on Tuesday

Gusty winds Sunday afternoon failed to flare up the Spokane Valley fire or a 900-acre fire near Colville, both of which firefighters expect to have fully contained by today.

Yet the National Weather Service is warning of critical fire weather in Eastern and Central Washington and predicting “red flag” conditions for several hours Tuesday afternoon and evening because of expected winds and very low relative humidity.

“It’s early into the fire season, and we are asking everyone to be cautious and that barbecues and open flame are closed in all areas except for approved campgrounds,” said Spokane Valley Fire Chief Mike Thompson.

He expects investigators to release specific details about the start of the Thursday afternoon blaze that destroyed 13 homes and caused the evacuation of hundreds of people in the Dishman Hills area. That information will likely include the address of the home with the backyard fire pit that “got away” in the northwest corner of the burned area, west of Park Road.

“We want to make sure we have all the facts or figures together before we make a statement,” said Thompson, whose agency has not released the homeowner’s identity.

Investigators, led by the state Department of Natural Resources, were still interviewing homeowners Sunday, and about 250 firefighters and other crews were still working to put out the blaze, he said.

Residents in the Park Lane area were allowed to return to their homes Saturday night, meaning few people remained at Red Cross shelters. Thompson said the residents remained on Level 2 alert, meaning that winds could cause a flare-up at any time, forcing them to leave immediately.

Winds of about 15 mph worried fire crews Sunday afternoon, but the gusts calmed by evening, he said.

For today, the National Weather Service Web site is predicting southwest winds between 6 mph and 14 mph with gusts as high as 23 mph. If the winds don’t cause fire flare-ups, Thompson expected fire crews to begin gearing down the operation this evening.

In Stevens County, Thursday’s high winds spread a group of human-caused fires that destroyed two homes and threatened 50 near the community of Barstow. Dubbed the Doyle complex, the fires that burned nearly 900 acres of timberland were about 20 percent contained Sunday, said DNR spokesman Brett Walker. The effort involved about 300 firefighters, and the three separate fires were surrounded by fire line, Walker said.

Winds picked up in the area Sunday, causing concern about firefighter safety because of overhead debris left in trees from Thursday’s windstorm.

Avista Corp. had restored service Sunday to all customers in the Spokane Valley, while 95 percent of the customers in the Colville area had power.

At the height of the outage, about 8,000 Colville-area customers lost power. As of Sunday, there were 254 customers without power, primarily in the Kettle Falls, Laurier and Inchelium areas, Avista spokeswoman Jessie Wuerst said in a press release.

In the Spokane Valley, about 1,000 customers were without power at the height of the outage.

Wuerst urged residents not to attempt to relight their natural gas appliances on their own, but to call (800) 227-9187 and let Avista workers handle the job.

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