September 9, 2011 in Region

Heat likely to keep Washington wildfires burning

Associated Press
 

GOLDENDALE, Wash. — Warm, dry weather is forecast to continue at least through the weekend in Washington, where firefighters are trying to contain a wildfire that has burned nine homes and 10 outbuildings near Satus Pass.

The National Weather Service said a high-pressure system over the Northwest should last a few days, with cooler temperatures returning later Monday.

Heavy smoke hung in the air today over Goldendale, where a wildfire has charred more than 8 square miles, or 5,300 acres, and forced the evacuation of about 75 homes.

Gov. Chris Gregoire met Thursday night with about 50 of the residents driven from their homes by the fire. She assured them that the state would do everything it can to protect their homes and property despite a budget crunch.

“The thing I want people to know when they’re evacuated from their homes is we are not going to be cheap about protecting their property,” Gregoire said at the Klickitat County fairgrounds, where the Red Cross has set up an evacuation center under the grandstands.

About 300 firefighters are fighting the blaze that started Wednesday. There is no estimate when it might be contained. A fire incident commander described the blaze to the evacuees as “a greased pig rodeo,” blown first in one direction, then another by shifting winds.

Ramon Dotson, 37, moved to the area just eight months ago and was evacuated from his home. He said he remains hopeful that the winds won’t kick up the fire, but he’s also sorry for those who already lost their homes.

“It’s such a sorry time for them,” he said. “I have so much sympathy.”

The fire was believed to have started along U.S. Highway 97 across the street from the Monastery of St. John the Forerunner. The 19 nuns and employees, who operate a well-known bakery there, saw flames and immediately ran outside with water, rakes and rags to beat back the fire.

Several customers in the bakery also joined in the effort until firefighters arrived, said Sister Parthenia, who has been at the monastery for 19 years.

“We’re just so grateful to God and everyone’s efforts. The firefighters worked so hard, even opened up a line up there,” she said, pointing behind one of their buildings. “We thought that was sweet they wanted to save our barn.”

The nuns evacuated their dozen-or-so goats, but the chickens remained. The flames crept up to the edge of their buildings and a cemetery, leaving the wooden crosses intact. No structures burned.

“It was very scary,” said Sister Theopisti. “Thanks to the blessings of God and prayer.”

There were no reports of any injuries, said Dale Warriner, interagency management team spokesman. Brooks Memorial State Park is closed. Traffic is disrupted on Highway 97 between Toppenish and Goldendale.

State Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark visited with firefighters and flew over the wildfire Thursday afternoon to assess the damage.

“There’s still a lot of residences in danger, but we’ve got a lot of resources in the air and on the ground,” he said. “Plenty of people have shared resources at a difficult time.”

Washington is experiencing an especially late start to its fire season following a winter with heavy snows and a cool spring.

Goldmark urged residents to be especially cautious given the dry conditions. Of the 500 wildfires in Washington this year, roughly 90 percent have been human-caused, he said.

The cause of this fire is under investigation, but residents say a pickup’s muffler may have sparked it.

“We need people to be extra vigilant not to conduct activities that will start fires,” Goldmark said. “They’re obviously very expensive and very destructive of private property and human health.”

On the Olympic Peninsula, fire managers on Friday expect that they’ll be able to contain a wildfire that started Aug. 31 in a wilderness area near Brinnon. No structures have burned.

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