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

’91 firestorm seared into area’s memory

“I don’t rest until the first snowflake falls,” said Wendy Johnson, whose 100-year- old house burned 20 years ago during a firestorm. (Colin Mulvany)

Twenty years ago today, wind-whipped wildfires took off and began to ravage several Eastern Washington counties.

It would take several days and multiple agencies to get nearly 100 fires contained.

By the end of what became known as “firestorm,” one person was dead and more than 100 homes had been burned to the ground.

Although the conflagration raged two decades ago, it led to many changes in emergency response and home construction.

It also burned lasting memories into many people’s minds.

Fear of fire

“I don’t rest until I see the first snowflake.”

Wendy Johnson lost her Ponderosa-area home in one of the many fires that made up the firestorm. “I think the worst part was coming back the next day to see what was left,” she said.

“And there was nothing left.”

Johnson’s house contained several generations of memories. She grew up in the 100-year-old home built on her grandmother’s homestead. After the firestorm, she rebuilt on the same land, but she still frets about another fire.

On Oct. 16, 1991, the day most of the fires broke out, she stepped outside to grab the garbage cans and “heard a sound that sounded like the ocean.”

“I turned around and there was a wall of flames, just that quick,” she said.

She and her husband were told they had 10 minutes to grab what they could and get out.

“We didn’t have time to grab anything,” she said. “There was smoke and dust and embers flying down on us. It was really scary.”

She said they were lucky to get out. As some residents tried to evacuate, others tried to get into the neighborhood to save what belongings they could. The only two roads in and out of the neighborhood became jammed, making it difficult for fire crews to get in – and for residents to get out.

Since then, officials have created an emergency access road. Still, Johnson said, it’s not enough.

“If there’s ever another fire, there’s so many more people that live here now, and heaven forbid if it happens at night,” she said. “We need more … exits out of this area.”

While she hopes she’ll never have to go through such an ordeal again – the stress from rebuilding her life led to a nervous breakdown a year after the fire – she said another fire is inevitable.

“That’s what’s scary,” she said. “It’s not a matter of if it happens, but when it happens again.”

Fighting the fires

Weather conditions that fall primed the area for the 92 blazes that made up firestorm.

Temperatures in October were unseasonably warm, reaching the mid-70s. Humidity was low, and after several years of drought and a 41-day stretch with no precipitation, vegetation became extremely dry.

A cold front dropped down from Alaska and brought with it gale-force winds that reached 62 miles per hour. The wind toppled trees, which took power lines with them, igniting the brush below. The wind carried embers, increasing the rate and area of fire spread. High winds made aerial fire suppression impossible.

The first fire was reported at 8:49 a.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 16, adjacent to Spokane International Airport. For the next couple of hours, dispatchers received calls nearly nonstop and dispatched alarms about once every 60 seconds. The calls were coming in before dispatchers could send out the previous alarm; they received 3,000 calls in the first 12 hours, although many were for the same fires.

“As the morning progressed, there was just one fire after another,” said Bob Anderson, Spokane County Fire District 9 chief. “So the fires would ignite and quickly spread faster than they could be contained.”

Coordinating fire crews was a logistical nightmare as fires spread across Spokane, Stevens, Ferry, Okanogan and Pend Oreille counties. Fire surrounded the city of Spokane on three sides; windswept smoke and dust filled the air, making it hard for fire officials to gauge the magnitude of the fires. The low visibility – it was almost zero – prevented the fires’ early detection.

Crews were “literally just running from one fire to the next,” Anderson said. “None of them were adequately staffed.”

By noon, every state Department of Natural Resources, county and city fire resource was committed. Crews continued fighting the fires into the weekend. They made progress, but another windy day was forecast for Monday, Oct. 21.

Fearing the winds would reactivate the old fires and create new ones, fire managers organized a massive buildup of crews and equipment and DNR brought in resources from around the state.

The second round of fires was met with heavy suppression; still, by the time all the fires were contained, one civilian life was lost, as well as 114 homes and numerous other buildings.

The aftermath

The firestorm led to widespread destruction, but it also prompted many changes in fire preparedness.

After the firestorm, a fire mobilization system was created to allow fire officials to quickly mobilize resources from around the state.

“We’ve used it every year since,” Anderson said.

Training also changed; now city and county firefighters receive more training on fighting wildfires, not just structure fires. Spokane County created the state’s first specially trained incident management team, which is on duty 24/7, Anderson said.

During firestorm, dispatchers for four agencies in Spokane County received thousands of calls for service, leading to confusion and difficulties coordinating firefighting efforts. In 1998, officials created the Combined Communication Center, and all Spokane County fire emergency calls are now dispatched from one location.

Spokane County has activated a reverse-911 system, called Alert Spokane, to tell homeowners of emergencies so they can be better prepared if they need to evacuate.

Home construction also changed, said Randy Vissia, Spokane County building director.

“What changed in the county right after those fires, certain roofing materials were no longer permitted – for instance, wood shingles and shakes – unless they were specially treated with fire-retardant materials,” he said. “Essentially, wooden roofing materials are no longer used.”

And, Vissia said, officials have increased public education efforts on the importance of including defensible space around homes and keeping yards clear of vegetation and debris.

But the climate and ecology haven’t changed, so another firestorm is possible.

“We can’t control those factors, but we can help prepare our citizens,” Anderson said.