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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Wildfire racing on wind

Baker's Pond-area property owners, from left, Betty Siegal, Deana McGlothlin and Linda Bauer look at photos of their burned buildings on Tuesday while Jack Jordan looks on. 
 (Photos by Jed Conklin/ / The Spokesman-Review)

POMEROY, Wash. – Heavy winds and high heat helped the School fire advance closer to dozens of cabins Tuesday and evade most attempts of control by the hundreds of firefighters sent to protect this small southeast Washington community.

Wide fire lines had encircled about a third of the blaze by Tuesday night, but firefighters were having almost no luck stopping the fire’s rapid advance toward at least 50 additional cabins and summer homes.

The fire, considered the most dangerous blaze right now in the United States, has already burned at least 50 cabins and an estimated eight year-round residences in the Blue Mountain foothills. A total of 41,000 acres – an area roughly 10 miles by eight miles – have burned since the fire ignited Saturday when a branch fell on a power line along the Tucannon River.

Before heading to the steeply timbered terrain Tuesday evening, firefighters were told to expect the worst.

A “dramatic increase” in winds was expected to buffet the area by midnight Tuesday, said John Heckman, lead fire behavior analyst for the national management team posted to the fire.

“You’re going to want to brief your crews real carefully,” Heckman told the fire bosses Tuesday evening shortly before they headed to the forests in their trucks. “You’re going to need alternate escape routes.”

Earlier Tuesday, some of the residents who lost homes in the fire gathered on a shaded sidewalk in front of the Garfield County Courthouse to receive an update from Sheriff Larry Bowles.

“Folks, I’m really sorry,” Bowles said.

Many residents have not seen their cabins or trailers since before the fire – the Baker’s Pond area, where an estimated 40 cabins burned Saturday evening, has been off-limits because of continued burning.

Others saw digital photographs of the remnants. Many of the photos were taken by Linda Bauer, who lives for most of the year in Kennewick. Bauer’s was one of the few cabins spared.

“It went right over the top of our place,” she said.

One of Bauer’s photos showed a partially melted snowmobile with rivulets of melted aluminum flowing out of its base. Tri-Cities resident Cathie Carter cupped her mouth as she came upon a photo of crumpled metal surrounded by blackened pine trees.

“That’s our place,” she said. “It’s hard to believe, it’s just hard to believe.”

Nearby cabins owned by Carter’s parents and brother were also destroyed.

Sheriff Bowles said it could be at least a week until it would be safe enough to return to the area.

On Saturday afternoon, Bowles had a close call while escorting some cabin owners to the area to rescue belongings before the fire arrived. The group had about 10 minutes before flames were close enough to feel the heat, Bowles said. Bowles said the fire seemed to be making its own rules, burning cabins that were far from brush and timber while sparing others that were surrounded by thick brush.

“It’s just a horrendous fire,” he said. “I’ve lived here all my life and I have never, ever, ever seen anything like this ever.”

Jack Jordan, a retiree from the Tri-Cities said he and his wife spent two years clearing brush from the acre lot surrounding their cabin.

“We got compliments from the ranger,” he said.

It burned to the ground.

“The darn thing went so fast,” Jordan said.

Elsewhere in the state, the U.S. Forest Service expanded campfire and woodcutting restrictions in the Okanogan and Wenatchee National Forests due to worsening fire conditions and the continued hot and dry weather. Three fires – one 18 miles northwest of Leavenworth, one 21 miles southeast of Tonasket and another near Cle Elum – all were at least 50 percent contained Tuesday.

The behavior of the School fire had many firefighters on edge. At the fire camp, which covers the Garfield County fairgrounds, the day started Tuesday at 6 a.m. with a briefing of the firefighters at the grandstands. Overnight, the School fire had risen to the top of the national priority list for fighting wildfires. It was now considered the meanest, biggest, most dangerous blaze in the United States. Managers had arisen hours before the briefing to begin planning their day’s attack and studying the latest satellite maps. Firefighters listened quietly. Some finished the remnants of their breakfasts of biscuits, gravy and sausage.

“Today’s a heads-up day. This thing’s got plenty of potential,” Incident Commander Bob Anderson told the assembled firefighters in the smoky dawn light.

Before heading out for a day on the fire lines, the men and women were reminded to drink a quart of water each hour and to make communications a priority – the smoke inversions plaguing the area each morning prevented helicopters from taking flight until midday and providing critical aerial support and oversight for the foot crews.

The firefighters were also given one bright spot of news before departing – the space shuttle had landed successfully. Many in the audience had helped search for wreckage from the shuttle crash two years ago. The news of the safe landing prompted cheers and applause.

An estimated 1,600 firefighters are now battling the blaze at a total cost of $2.5 million.

Despite the ferocity of the fire, several important battles had been won.

Crews managed to save at least five homes along the Tucannon River upstream from the Wooten State Wildlife Refuge.

Hot shot crew leader Eric Krueger said several homes were saved when the fire was allowed to advance toward the residences during the cooler, damper morning hours when flames are easier to control. When the flames were within 100 feet of the homes, they were doused, often with help from the homeowners, such as Joanne and Jim Kirkpatrick.

“It was just like sparklers on the Fourth of July,” Jim Kirkpatrick said, describing the sight of trees exploding in flames behind his home early Monday morning. The home was saved, but is surrounded by blackened hillside.

“We’re very grateful,” Joanne Kirkpatrick said. “We slept last night for the first time in three days.”

Not far away, Don Jackson sat frustrated in the shade. Jackson, a retired firefighter from the nearby community of Starbuck, said he wanted to use his large Caterpillar bulldozer to help plow a fire line around his daughter’s cabin on the opposite side of the blaze, more than 10 miles away. Instead, he was ordered to wait. Many firefighters were kept out of the steep southeast area of the fire Tuesday because of the intensity of the flames. Jackson wanted a chance to fight.

“I believe in getting in and getting something done,” he said. “I just don’t believe in this bureaucracy we’ve got. We should be stopping those things.”

Jackson spent much of the weekend fighting flames using nothing more than a shovel. “When you see your neighbors place on fire, you better help what you can,” he said.

As he spoke, powerful, hot winds blew out of the canyons, feeling like a car heater at full blast. A massive pillar of orange and gray smoke rose above a nearby ridge top. More forest was burning uncontrollably. Most of the hillsides nearby were already black.

“Look at her now,” Jackson said. “Look at her now. Look what’s left for my kids!”