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Evacuated residents return to homes as crews mop up fire on Beacon Hill

UPDATED: Thu., July 19, 2018, 12:03 p.m.

People returned to their homes in the Beacon Hill area Wednesday morning after a fast-moving wildfire burned more than 115 acres and forced evacuations.

Two structures were lost, including a home near the fire’s origin on Upriver Drive. A double-wide trailer and garage off Valley Spring Road also burned. And yet it was the area’s infrastructure that took the biggest hit.

Altogether, Avista confirmed eight of its transmission poles had either burned, melted or fallen due to the weight of the others coming down. David Vowels, spokesman for the company, said they were replacing the wooden poles with metal ones in case a fire burns through the area again, as it did in 2016.

Vowels estimated three five-man crews would be finished replacing the poles by Thursday afternoon.

Inland Power and Light Co., which first reported late Tuesday that 180 customers were without power as a result of the fire, downgraded the outage to about 24 customers Wednesday afternoon. Jeannie Bigsmoke, a dispatcher at Inland Power, said the company had lost two poles on Upriver Drive where the fire began.

She said the company has had crews on the scene “around the clock” and hoped to get power turned on Thursday afternoon for those customers.

On Wednesday a little before noon, about a half dozen Avista trucks navigated a narrow dirt road so workers could snip wires and cut down the power poles.

Vowels said the lost poles didn’t impact residents because they were transmission structures, not distribution lines that directly serve homes.

“Due to the redundancies we built into our system, we were able to reroute power so customers weren’t impacted,” he said.

A fire crew from Snohomish County, who made the trek to Spokane at about 3 a.m., surveyed the large blackened grass field where a long line of power lines stretched up the hill and across to the northeast. They moved slowly, walking in a row and putting out spot fires as they flared.

“We’re not only here to protect structures,” said Megan Hill, the fire’s public information officer. “We’re protecting infrastructure, too.”

When they came across a burned power pole, workers used chain saws. Once down, they attacked it with axes and shovels, exposing flames and dousing it with a small hose.

“This is awesome,” remarked Hill as she stood next to a melted beehive.

Firefighters estimated the fire – named the Upriver Beacon fire – grew to about 115 acres near Camp Sekani. The fire appears to have begun at a home at 6413 E. Upriver Drive owned by Frederick M. Schunter, who was the first CEO of Inland Northwest Bank, according to Spokesman-Review archives.

The fire then worked its way up the hill, pushed by wind, before cresting and burning dry grass and trees at the top.

Firefighters dug a line around the blaze, but crews weren’t ready to say it was contained until all of the hot spots had been extinguished, Hill said.

While giving a tour of the fire’s northern edge near Valley Spring Road to a group of reporters, the area remained smoky even though the fire was not visibly moving in any direction or spreading.

Mandatory evacuations were lifted for about 800 homes whose residents were asked to leave Tuesday evening. Beacon Hill, Shields Park and Camp Sekani remained closed Wednesday, as did long stretches of road along East Upriver Drive.


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