A hundred firefighters from around the state drew a literal line in the sand Thursday in southern Stevens County in what appeared to be a successful ploy to contain the area’s first major wildfire of a potentially dangerous season.
“We’re hoping to keep it clear of western Corkscrew Canyon here,” said D.J. Goldsmith, a fire operations chief, as he pointed Thursday to the canyon that had escaped the blaze. “If not, it’s going to be a long run.”
The fire, which erupted Wednesday, quickly swallowed 900 acres of private and state-owned forestland about 50 miles northwest of Spokane.
Bulldozers cleared a line around the fire south of Ford, Washington, and north of Long Lake on Wednesday night, and crews from as far away as Bellevue arrived Thursday to contain the fire in a triangular area roughly bounded by state highways 291, 231 and Corkscrew Canyon Road. The heat, arid conditions and shifting winds concerned workers, but only light plumes of smoke could be seen rising into the cloudless sky above the tree line Thursday afternoon.
Those were quickly extinguished by swooping helicopters carrying buckets of lake water overhead.
Temperatures in the area topped 90 degrees Thursday, with the heat and rainless conditions expected to last into next week. Those fighting the flames expressed concern about the fire breaching the dug fire line and heat exhaustion, which affected three firefighters on Wednesday night, according to workers for the American Red Cross.
Officials did not identify a cause for the fire Thursday, citing an ongoing investigation. But area residents said they believed it was started by burning garbage.
Evacuation orders were posted for those living within the triangular area threatened by the flames, predicted to number about 60. Most residents chose to stay in their homes and draw their own lines in the sand. Thursday evening, all mandatory evacuations were lifted.
“I’ll leave if the flames hit the top of the ridge,” said Lisa Sheppard, pointing to the top of a hill about a half mile from her single-story home along Highway 291 as helicopters buzzed overhead. Sheppard, who said she grew up amid wildfires, moved her pregnant mares from grazing pasture in the line of fire Wednesday night and was monitoring the flames from her home Thursday.
The keys and prized possessions, including family photos, were in the back of her sedan, ready for her to flee at a moment’s notice, Sheppard said. She praised firefighters for their efforts in battling the blaze.
“This is the best response I’ve seen,” Sheppard said.
Randy and Debbie Baker live over the hill, off Corkscrew Canyon Road, and also had not left their home Thursday afternoon. Randy Baker showed off some photographs he’d taken of the flames and helicopters, saying he successfully led a grazing cow away from the flames on his four-wheeler Wednesday night as the fire spread.
“There were cinders in my hair,” Randy Baker said.
The power went off at the Bakers’ ranch home shortly after the fire began but kicked back on later in the night, Debbie Baker said. The couple has lived on the ridge for more than 20 years and said this week’s blaze was the closest any fire had come to consuming their home.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency said it would help defray the costs of battling the fire, which as of Thursday night had not caused any structural damage. The Red Cross planned to maintain a shelter Thursday night at Lakeside Middle School for those who had evacuated their homes. No one stayed overnight Wednesday at the earlier designated shelter, Lakeside High School.
Officials said the Lake Spokane Campground, including its boat ramp and beach, at Highway 291 and Corkscrew Canyon Road will be closed all weekend.
Though this week’s fire appeared to be contained without injuries or structural damage, firefighters said they were concerned such an intense blaze early in what is predicted to be a dry summer could be a harbinger of a dangerous season to come.
“We still have about 60 days of active fire, unless we happen to get some rain,” said Bruce Holloway, chief of Spokane County Fire District 3 who served as incident commander for most of Thursday near the blaze. “So the longer we go, the worse it’s going to get. This is pretty intense, pretty early.”