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At least 70 homes destroyed in Cle Elum fire

Flames surround a house Tuesday on a hillside near Cle Elum, Wash. (Associated Press)
Flames surround a house Tuesday on a hillside near Cle Elum, Wash. (Associated Press)
Shannon Dininny Associated Press

CLE ELUM, Wash. – Desperate neighbors tried to cut fire lines with hand tools to help protect property threatened by a fast-moving wildfire that destroyed at least 70 homes and burned across more than 40 square miles on the east slope of the Cascades.

Gusty winds and high temperatures hampered efforts Tuesday to deal with the fire burning on grassland, timber and sagebrush east of Cle Elum.

By Tuesday night, the fire was 10 percent contained, incident commander Rex Reed said.

At least 900 people have been evacuated. No injuries have been reported. In addition to the homes, Reed estimated that several hundred outbuildings have burned.

Firefighters were trying to keep the blaze out of heavy timber to the north. If the flames reach that abundant source of dry fuel, “that adds a whole new equation,” Reed said.

The first started Monday at a bridge construction site.

A number of homes that burned were along Bettas Road near Cle Elum. An Associated Press photographer witnessed about eight people using hand tools to cut a fire line in an attempt to protect one home.

The grass fire was suddenly whipped up by the wind and came directly toward the group, causing them to scatter. Everyone made it away safely, and the fire slowed, allowing a man with a water truck to dampen the perimeter of the house just in time to save it from the blaze.

Fire commanders estimated the fire has burned across at least 28,000 acres, or almost 44 square miles, and was not contained. Fire crews were arriving from across the state, with as many as 600 expected by the end of the day.

Joe Seemiller, a captain in Kittitas County Fire and Rescue, and his crews monitored the edge of the fire Tuesday near the Yakima River, trying to keep it from crossing where there is a subdivision of homes nearby on the other side.

“Unless Mother Nature helps us out here, we’re going to be fighting this awhile,” Seemiller said.

Gov. Chris Gregoire declared a state of emergency for Kittitas and Yakima counties in response to the blaze, which has come to be known as the Taylor Bridge.

Also, air support from the Washington National Guard has been called in.

The fire also threatened a chimpanzee sanctuary. “They definitely know there’s weirdness happening,” Outreach Director Diana Goodrich said Tuesday.

The state Transportation Department said a 14-mile section of U.S. Highway 97 was closed because of the fire.

The fire started along Highway 10 between Ellensburg and Cle Elum, said Kent Verbeck, a commissioner and one of the volunteers with Fire District 7.

Chane Roghair, 39, worked to dampen hot spots around his 1,300-acre ranch of beef cattle and quarter horses.

Roghair had tanker trucks around his two hay barns to keep them from going up in flames when the fire passed through Monday. He spent the night keeping watch and dousing spot fires.

No buildings or livestock were lost – his 30 goats hustled down the hill toward the house when the ridge caught fire – but the fire destroyed the original homestead that had been empty for years.

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