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Chimney fire sparked conflagration that burned 18 homes

MONDAY, FEB. 14, 2011, 7:34 A.M.

Gladys Heath-Sam hugs her nephew, Cameron Heath, 9, as he and other family members look over the burned remains of the house where Heath lived on Sunday, Feb. 13, 2011, the day following a wind-fanned fire in White Swan, Wash.  Fire Chief Brian Vogel told The Associated Press that the wild land fires had been controlled, but thousands of logs on log decks at one of the mills were still burning. They're expected to burn for another 24 hours, the Yakima Herald-Republic newspaper reported Sunday.  No residents were hurt but two firefighters were treated for minor injuries, sheriffs Sgt. George Town told the AP. (Andy Sawyer / Yakima Herald-Republic)
Gladys Heath-Sam hugs her nephew, Cameron Heath, 9, as he and other family members look over the burned remains of the house where Heath lived on Sunday, Feb. 13, 2011, the day following a wind-fanned fire in White Swan, Wash. Fire Chief Brian Vogel told The Associated Press that the wild land fires had been controlled, but thousands of logs on log decks at one of the mills were still burning. They're expected to burn for another 24 hours, the Yakima Herald-Republic newspaper reported Sunday. No residents were hurt but two firefighters were treated for minor injuries, sheriffs Sgt. George Town told the AP. (Andy Sawyer / Yakima Herald-Republic)

WHITE SWAN, Wash. — A chimney fire at White Swan is suspected of starting the wildfire that destroyed 18 homes at White Swan and blew across about 230 acres Saturday in high winds on the Yakama Reservation in central Washington.

Yakama Nation Fire Management Officer Don Jones told the Yakima Herald-Republic winds were blowing so hard that water from fire hoses was blown away before reaching the flames.

The fire was contained Sunday but continued to smolder in a log pile at the Jeld-Wen wood-chipping plant.

Two firefighters suffered minor injuries.

“The quicker we start the healing process for the community, the better,” said Allen Walker, deputy chief for Yakima County Fire District No. 5.

White Swan, a small community on the Yakama reservation about 21 miles west of Toppenish, became a war zone as firefighters from across the area battled wind-whipped blazes.

All entrances to White Swan were blocked Saturday by emergency personnel, and with electrical power out, the only light was flames from burning structures and a log stack at the Jeld-Wen wood-chipping plant west of the community. That blaze could be seen for miles.

The fires raged as trees and power lines fell in winds gusts estimated at up 70 mph.

“There are a lot of spot fires. We have a hazardous, dangerous situation here,” said Harry Smiskin, chairman of the Yakama Nation Tribal Council, who was on the scene monitoring the fires Saturday.

One firefighter was slightly injured when he was struck in an eye by debris.

An initial report to Yakima County Fire District 5 was called in at 1:37 p.m. about a chimney fire at 131 Hitchcock Lane, which is west of White Swan.

Embers whipped by high winds moved to the Jeld-Wen log stacks and through dry brush into White Swan, where homes were ignited. Flames took down power poles, and a downed power line lay across West White Swan Road.

Flames quickly consumed homes on Coburn Loop Road as well as houses on First and Second streets.

On Second Street, longtime homeowner Rodney Martin, 45, watched as his home went up in flames.

“I saw the fire across the street. I ran to see it,” said Martin, his face streaked with soot. “It came so fast. All the houses on Second Street are gone.”

Martin said he tried to wet down the front of his home with a hose, but it was too late.

“It overtook me,” said Martin, who is to celebrate his 22nd wedding anniversary in a few days.

He said he could stay with relatives.

Faron Young, manager of the White Swan Trading Post, 160 Birch Ave., said fire officials ordered the business to close about 3 p.m.

“There are lots of little fires out there,” he said. “I know the fire department came and shut down the store and told everybody to leave.”

Cheryl Hart, 54, never did reach her home. Shopping in Yakima, she said she and her sister saw the smoke from just south of Union Gap.

Hart was stopped from entering the community and was told her house on Maple Street had been destroyed. She wasn’t sure what happened to her two dogs and a cat.

“This is the first house fire we have ever had. I consider myself lucky,” the 54-year-old Hart said in a telephone interview.

She was at Harrah Elementary School Saturday, where the American Red Cross had established a shelter for fire victims.

Stephanie Hakala, a spokeswoman for the Yakima Valley Chapter of the American Red Cross, said chapter representatives were preparing to have enough food to feed firefighters and the displaced residents of White Swan, which has a population within and around the unincorporated community of about 3,200.



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