They’d been there before.
That was the feeling as residents of northwest Spokane peered across the Spokane River at the smoke in Riverside State Park.
It was three years ago, on July 11, 1994, when a fire roared through the tinder-dry park, jumped the river and came dangerously close to homes.
“We went through all this a couple of years ago,” said Bernie Armstrong, as he changed the anti-freeze on his car Thursday afternoon with his son, Sean. “Last time we didn’t get my wife’s thesis papers. This time we’ll get them.”
With fire engines and police cars crowding their neighborhoods and the sky a cloud of brown smoke, people rode bikes, walked dogs, tended their lawns.
They took precautions, but didn’t run scared.
Many people held cellular phones to their ears, talking to family and friends, and getting weather updates. Sprinklers were on, and hoses dangled from roof-tops, in position if needed.
The fire kept residents in suspense for four anxious hours - from 2:30 p.m., when initial broadcasts were aired, until 6:30 p.m., when officials labeled the blaze “under control.”
A crowd gathered at the intersection of Rifle Club Road and Aubrey White Parkway, on a bluff overlooking the river. Residents recalled the day three years ago when they had to decide what to keep and what to abandon, perhaps forever.
Margie Lunt remembered seeing flames climb the river bank. She felt the gust of wind that sent the blaze east on Aubrey White, away from her home.
“The planes were going over, and I got orange retardant all over me,” Lunt said of the 1994 fire. “I saw the flames.”
On Thursday, the horizon on the bluff was one of police cars, children and people on bikes. They shaded their eyes with their hands, taking in what felt like a carton’s worth of cigarette smoke with every breath, but they laughed and joked because this time they were prepared.
Some had videotaped their possessions. They knew what to pack. They’d become educated in reading fires and felt that the calmly flowing Spokane River would keep this one away.
“Last time, we were nervous,” said Jim Noldin, who lives on Rifle Club Road. “This time, I feel comfortable.”
Still, some already had sent families to stay with relatives. Rich Arrigo’s wife and three children were with “grandma” in the Spokane Valley.
“The last thing I wanted to worry about was getting them out,” Arrigo said.
In a neighborhood south of Fairmount Cemetery, residents sat on back porches, binoculars in hand, watching the fire as if it were an action movie.
“We haven’t got to the point where we’re really scared yet because the wind is blowing that way,” said Charles Radford, 5621 Northwest Blvd.
“If it starts blowing back this way, we might start packing some things.” , DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: FIRE HISTORY 1996 - Like Thursday’s fires, the one that scorched more than 3,000 acres on the West Plains last year was caused by negligence. A burn barrel flared out of control and eight homes were destroyed. 1994 - A homeless man started a 300-acre blaze in Riverside State Park that forced the evacuation of more than a hundred homes and the Manor Care Convalescent and Rehabilitation Center. 1991 - Firestorm lit up Eastern Washington and North Idaho. More than 80 individual fires burned 50,000 acres. Two people died, and 112 structures were destroyed.
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