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

Wenatchee residents return to smoldering ruins

Vern Smith, right, embraces his son Spencer, 13, as daughter Mary, 17, stands with them and his wife, Julie, joins them in front of the remains of their fire-destroyed home Monday in Wenatchee. (Associated Press)
Nicholas K. Geranios Associated Press

WENATCHEE – Surveying the smoldering ruins of his upscale home, Vern Smith pointed to what had been his garage.

“You can’t tell from here, but that’s a brand new truck,” Smith said, looking at the burned vehicle.

Smith was among those in Wenatchee searching for something to salvage after a fast-moving wildfire destroyed two dozen houses and several businesses.

The fire, which began Sunday, was the worst so far this season as the state struggles with a severe drought. Mountain snowpack is extremely low, and about one-fifth of the state’s rivers and streams are at record low levels.

Fire spokeswoman Kay McKellar said Tuesday night that the fire, which burned more than 4 square miles on the north side of the city, was about 47 percent contained, up from 10 percent Tuesday morning.

As a precaution, residents of about 4,000 homes in the Wenatchee area remain under orders to be prepared to evacuate immediately, officials said.

The fire destroyed 24 homes in the Broadview neighborhood. Downtown, two major fruit-packing houses and two other fruit-related businesses were heavily damaged by flames, losses that will likely total tens of millions of dollars. Wenatchee is a major center of the state’s apple-growing industry.

The cause of the fire remained under investigation, said Nathan Rabe, the fire incident commander.

Nearly 250 firefighters were on the scene, contending with 100-degree temperatures and breezy winds. There have been no major injuries.

Chief Mike Burnett of Chelan County Fire District 1 said Sunday’s flames could have been much more destructive. “It’s amazing no one didn’t get hurt,” Burnett said.

The flames in the downtown core burned near BNSF railroad tracks, halting rail operations including Amtrak service through the agricultural city.

Dry conditions caused by this year’s prolonged drought east of the Cascades helped spread the flames, but initial firefighting efforts did a good job of saving many homes, Rabe said.

“The burning conditions we are in are extreme,” he said.

Tom Bryant watched the flames charge up a hillside toward his home Sunday afternoon, then turned and told his wife it was time to go.

That’s when the front door burst open and a firefighter rushed in.

“He doesn’t knock,” Bryant recalled. “He ran in the door and said to get out.”

Bryant, his wife and pets jumped into their vehicle and escaped. Their home was one of the two dozen destroyed.

At his home Monday, Bryant found the burned remains of his vintage Shelby Mustang GT 500 sports car, buried in ash.

“It hurts, but it’s just stuff,” he said, while his wife searched for their missing cat.

Smith also noted that things could be much worse.

“Everybody is safe and the animals are good. We’ve got insurance,” he said Monday.