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Nearly 800 homes evacuated as wildfire engulfs home north of Upriver Drive

UPDATED: Wed., July 18, 2018, 8:17 a.m.

Wednesday update:

Firefighters have built a line completely around the fire that destroyed a home and burned 115 acres Tuesday along Upriver Drive near Camp Sekani, said Megan Hill, of Spokane County Fire District 4, on Wednesday morning. All mandatory evacuations have been lifted. Fire officials are gathered at the Spokane County Fairgrounds. Beacon Hill, Shields Park and Camp Sekani are closed for recreational use on Wednesday.

Original story:

Hundreds of Spokane County residents north of the Upriver Dam were forced to evacuate late Tuesday afternoon by a fast-moving wildfire that quickly consumed 120 acres.

At least one home was destroyed by the fire, which was first reported about 4:30 p.m. on property adjacent to Camp Sekani Park in the 6400 block of East Upriver Drive.

Fire crews from Spokane, Spokane Valley and Spokane County Fire District 9 were the first departments on scene. Numerous others quickly followed.

“You name it,” said Gerry Bozarth, Spokane County Emergency Management spokesman. “They were here.”

About 770 homes were placed under mandatory evacuation orders, and 2,800 phones were contacted to warn that they lived in the level-three evacuation area, Bozarth said. Mandatory evacuations were lifted for all but three homes about 9 p.m.

No injuries were reported. A cause of the fire, named the Upriver Beacon fire, had not been determined.

By 10 p.m., crews had created a line around 50 percent of the fire by hand and with bulldozers, Bozarth said.

Inland Power and Light Co. reported that 180 customers were without power late Tuesday as a result of the fire.

At least six air tankers and two helicopter scoopers, including a DC-10, used river water and fire retardant to douse the flames.

Susanna Lavrov, 26, was at home on the 6100 block of East Valley Springs Road when two people called her and said there was smoke by her home.

“I went outside and it was like, ‘Oh my!’ It’s horrible,” she said. “I could see the flames from my house.”

She grabbed her three kids and fled. She was trying to negotiate to get back home through the Spokane police barricade at Wellesley Avenue and Havana Street. “I’m worried about my four goats, and I have chickens too,” she said. “It was horrible. I couldn’t believe it.”

Residents were asked to immediately leave homes located west of Northwood Drive, south of Francis Avenue, east of Beacon Hill and north of Upriver Drive. A level-three evacuation means residents are ordered to leave their homes immediately and take all family members, pets and necessary items like medication and important documents.

Ryland Carter, 40, has a custom cabinet shop at 6011 E. Valley Springs Road. Carter said he could see the fire coming and before he knew it, firefighters were crawling over his property.

“It was screaming forward and they couldn’t stop it,” Carter said, estimating it got within 300 yards of his shop. “It was in the trees. Some of the flames were several hundred feet high. And then the wind shifted.”

As Carter watched, crews hit the flames with airplanes, helicopters and a man cut a fire line with a bulldozer. “There were teams of people stopping houses from going up,” he said.

Mike Toroitic photographs a helicopter refilling its water bucket while attacking a wildfire north of Upriver Drive that destroyed homes and prompted fire officials to call for a level three evacuation for homeowners in the area on Tuesday, July 17, 2018, in Spokane. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Mike Toroitic photographs a helicopter refilling its water bucket while attacking a wildfire north of Upriver Drive that destroyed homes and prompted fire officials to call for a level three evacuation for homeowners in the area on Tuesday, July 17, 2018, in Spokane. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

With the change of the wind, firefighters shifted their perimeter to the east. “I’m no firefighter, but it looks like they’re getting some of it contained,” Carter said, noting that the last fire that raged through came within 150 feet of his shop.

“What these firefighters do is amazing,” Carter said. “How they stop it from taking these houses is pretty amazing.”

North of the fire, near Columbia Drive and Scenic Lane, homeowners were watering their roofs and lawns. Flames got within 20 feet from Steve and Debby Spulers’ house as nearby residents packed their cars with fly-fishing gear, guns and other items they wanted to save.

About eight firefighters, four fire trucks and a tractor worked to hold the fire back from reaching the Spulers’ home.

But Steve Spuler, a retired Spokane Valley firefighter, wasn’t worried. When he and his wife moved into the home on the edge of the housing development near Camp Sekani Park in March, he scouted the area to make sure there wasn’t a big threat form wildfire.

“I think my experience helped with the anxiety for this place during the fire,” said Spuler, who was quick to offer advice to homeowners. “Some people have combustibles next to their house. People should have a defensible space.”

Citizens watch helicopters make refill runs from the Spokane River while attacking a wildfire north of Upriver Drive that destroyed at least one home and prompted fire officials to call for a level three evacuation for homeowners in the area on Tuesday, July 17, 2018, in Spokane County. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Citizens watch helicopters make refill runs from the Spokane River while attacking a wildfire north of Upriver Drive that destroyed at least one home and prompted fire officials to call for a level three evacuation for homeowners in the area on Tuesday, July 17, 2018, in Spokane County. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Stephanie Grineau, a resident on North Jensen Road, was preparing to evacuate with her family and two small dogs after getting a call from “emergency services to be packed up and ready to leave.”

“My concern is losing everything,” she said. “But I have my husband, my son and my granddaughter, and we’ll be all right.”

Eric Keller, spokesman for the state Department of Natural Resources, led a team of reporters into the fire perimeter just north of 6413 E. Upriver Drive. The scene included charred grass, trees and the remnants of a home.

Crews doused the fire that destroyed an older wood-sided home. It also destroyed a riding lawnmower, but spared a nearby Kubota tractor and flatbed trailer. Property records indicate the home was built in the 1950s and is owned by Frederick M. Schunter.

The path of the fire appeared to start at or near the home and, pushed by the wind, raced north over the tall ridge toward Valley Springs Road.

Spokane Firefighter Thomas Barga hoses down the fast-moving fire that claimed a home just north of Upriver Driver on Tuesday, July 17, 2018. (Tom Clouse / The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane Firefighter Thomas Barga hoses down the fast-moving fire that claimed a home just north of Upriver Driver on Tuesday, July 17, 2018. (Tom Clouse / The Spokesman-Review)

Extra state resources to fight the fire were mobilized late Tuesday. The state Fire Marshal’s Office will coordinate the dispatch of additional resources.

Among the departments that arrived at the fire on Tuesday were Almira, Newman Lake, Hauser Lake and Fairchild Air Force Base, according to a visual survey of trucks.

Spokane Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer said the city’s fire department had 11 companies battling the blaze, and estimated about 40 members of his fire department were taking part.

“The whole county is pretty well involved,” Schaeffer said.

The American Red Cross opened a shelter for evacuated residents at Bowdish Middle School. No one had shown up in the first hour it was open, but officials planned to keep it open all night.

“There’s all these people being evacuated, but who knows how many don’t have family or friends?” said Red Cross volunteer Summer Warfield. “We plan for the worst and hope for the best.”

Will Campbell, Thomas Clouse, Nicholas Deshais, Rachel Sun and Rebecca White reported this story.


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