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Crews gain ground on wildfire near Chelan

Firefighters from throughout the region respond to a wildfire near Lake Chelan on Wednesday, July 29, 2009.  (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Firefighters from throughout the region respond to a wildfire near Lake Chelan on Wednesday, July 29, 2009. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

CHELAN — Firefighters gained some ground Wednesday on a wildfire threatening homes near Chelan in north-central Washington, as more firefighters arrived to the scene.

More than 120 homes were threatened by the fire, which was sparked by lightning about 9 p.m. Tuesday in the Union Valley area about 2 miles north of Chelan. Roughly 79 residents had been evacuated, said Jeri Freimuth, a public information officer for the fire management team assigned to the blaze.

The fire has burned between 500 and 600 acres, or about 1 square mile, and was 10 percent contained.

The Red Cross opened a shelter at Chelan High school, but no one was there. No injuries or property damage have been reported.

The Pacific Northwest has been enduring a heat streak for days, with temperatures breaking the 100-degree mark across Washington and Oregon. Some large timber companies in the two states halted operations on forest land because of the extreme conditions.

The National Weather Service expects Wednesday to be the hottest day in the streak, with high temperatures exceeding 100 degrees in some areas.

Lightning storms have repeatedly swept through the region, sparking numerous wildfires. Thunderstorms produced 1,000 lightning strikes in eastern Washington during a six-hour period Tuesday afternoon.

In Washington, the number of fires reported on state and private land this summer has increased by one-third, to about 700 fires, according to the state Department of Natural Resources. Still, far fewer acres have burned than in a typical year.

The coming days and weeks could be the biggest test yet of 2009, Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark said in a statement.

Some rain fell on the fire near Chelan, but not enough to keep flames from spreading in steep terrain through trees and brush that have been dried by the hot weather.

Fire trucks were stationed near threatened homes to protect them.

About 165 firefighters were already assigned to the fire, and another 175 more were expected Wednesday afternoon. Helicopters and air tankers also could be called in, said Rick Isaacson, another fire information officer.

Isaacson said Chelan County commissioners declared an emergency Wednesday, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency authorized federal money to help pay for the firefighting effort.

Mike McCoy, a local resident, had a low-key attitude about the fire.

“We’ve been through this so many times I’m not worried about it,” he told The Wenatchee World. “We know just what to grab.”

Kathy Polley, a veterinarian, was heading into town to check a sick horse, but was planning to quickly return home, fearing she would have to evacuate her own animals.

“Last night I was dreadfully worried,” she said. I could see the orange glow just at the top of this hill — and it must have been 200 feet high.”

Several new fires were reported in north-central Washington near Leavenworth, in the Entiat Valley and in the Methow Valley.

The largest of the fires had spread to about 50 acres on Chikamin Ridge, 26 miles north of Leavenworth. Air tankers were dropping retardant on the blaze, and the forest service put in a request for helicopters and firefighters, said Robin DeMario, spokeswoman for the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.

“We got bombarded with quite a bit of lightning, and there is potential for holdover fires to ignite,” DeMario said.

Firefighters reached 90 percent containment of several fires burning on the Colville Indian Reservation northeast of Nespelem. The fires have burned 955 acres.

A fire burning near the popular fly fishing section of the North Umpqua River in southwest Oregon has grown to 500 acres, and the Forest Service said rugged terrain was making it tough to get firefighters close to the flames.

Umpqua National Forest spokesman Tom Fields said no evacuations had been called for yet in the area east of Roseburg. About 225 firefighters were assigned to the blaze. Two helicopters were handling water drops and two air tankers were dropping retardant on the fire.

In central Oregon, more than 400 firefighters continued to battle the Cougar Creek fire, located about 10 miles south of John Day in the Strawberry Mountain Wilderness Area. No structures are threatened, but some trails have been closed.

The fire has burned about 800 acres, or more than 1 square mile, but was 35 percent contained Wednesday.

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