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Blaze ousts residents

Thu., July 30, 2009

Wind whips Chelan-area fire sparked by lightning

CHELAN, Wash. – A fire near Lake Chelan on Wednesday charred more than 700 acres and forced the evacuation of nearly 80 residents.

Lightning sparked the Union Valley blaze Tuesday evening, and overnight winds whipped flames into a fire that scorched a hillside and threatened homes near this lakeside community. More than 400 firefighters from across the state, including Spokane, were called in to fight the fire, which was 20 percent contained Wednesday evening.

“All it took was one thunder cell overhead, and it just blew it up,” said Nick Mickel, spokesman for the state Department of Natural Resources. “It was a wind-driven fire. Once the wind died down, we were able to get a handle on it.”

Residents of about 120 to 140 homes were either urged to evacuate or to be ready to, but fire officials said only 79 people left their homes.

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

Kathy Polley, a veterinarian, headed into town Wednesday to check a sick horse and planned a quick return home, fearing she would have to evacuate her own animals.

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

No injuries or property damage had been reported as of Wednesday evening, and flames were limited to a slope off McGinty Road, near Union Valley Loop, about two miles north of Chelan.

“There’s no smoke in the town,” Mickel said. “Let people know to come over and recreate.”

The Chelan blaze is the largest new fire in a season that officials fear could be one of the region’s worst. The largest fire burning – since lightning storms first pushed through the area last week – is the Johnson Lake complex, about six miles northeast of Nespelem, Wash. That blaze had charred more than 900 acres and was 90 percent contained Wednesday.

As record temperatures hit Seattle and Portland, burn bans were in place in Spokane County, Spokane Valley, Millwood and Liberty Lake, and the DNR warned of increased high fire danger in Western and Central Washington.

Lightning also ignited 25 fires in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest on Tuesday evening, including the 47-acre Mineral Hill fire, which was 70 percent contained Wednesday afternoon. All told, DNR reported 40 new fires Wednesday statewide.

Chelan-area fire officials reassessed conditions Wednesday evening and downgraded evacuation recommendations. Residents were told to be on alert.

“Anything can happen. It’s better safe than sorry,” said Rick Isaacson, public information officer.

None of the 79 people who left their homes stayed at a shelter set up by the American Red Cross at Chelan High School. That shelter later was relocated to the Lake Chelan United Methodist Church, the Red Cross reported.

Fire crews established a fire line near a housing development that had created defensible space using a grant from the DNR. The agency provides money to help homeowners be proactive in fighting wildfires. “That was a fire line they could count on,” Isaacson said.

Staff writer Sara Leaming and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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