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Monday, February 17, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Officials say Stevens County wildfire is arson

The Carpenter Road wildfire, shown Aug. 18, claimed 42 structures and caused one death, authorities say. (File)
The Carpenter Road wildfire, shown Aug. 18, claimed 42 structures and caused one death, authorities say. (File)

A wildfire that has scorched nearly 100 square miles in Stevens County was started intentionally, the Bureau of Indian Affairs said Friday.

“This fire has done a tremendous amount of damage to 18 primary residences, the natural resources and surrounding communities during a very dry summer,” said Marcella Teters, the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ superintendent for the Spokane Indian Reservation, in a statement released jointly by the bureau and the Spokane Tribe of Indians.

The news release said the fire was started by humans, not lightning, burning 42 structures and costing more than $20 million to suppress so far. Flames have continued for more than a month after being discovered Aug. 13 along the Wellpinit-Westend Road, just north of the Rock Church in the West End area of the Spokane Indian Reservation, according to the news release.

The fire was fed by dry conditions and blowing winds, which pushed the flames northeast into Stevens County Fire District 2. Rick Anderson, chief of that district, said he had not been informed of the determination that the fire was caused by an arsonist.

“I know that the night before, there was some lightning, and a small fire. We turned it over that night, then we got a call the next day that there was smoke in the area,” Anderson said.

He said he couldn’t confirm if the two fires were related. The second day, Aug. 14, the fire took off, he said.

The blaze, one of many that have burned hundreds of thousands of acres in central and northwestern Washington, prompted evacuations on the reservation and in Stevens County after jumping roads and causing the death of Larry Lehrbas, a Fruitland man who was trying to save his property ahead of advancing flames.

The news release did not specify what evidence at the scene of the fire’s origin prompted the arson determination. Tom Lavagnino, a spokesman for the tribe, said investigators had not released any additional information about what was found on the reservation.

Those with information about the fire are asked to contact law enforcement by calling (800) 472-7766. Callers can remain anonymous, and a $10,000 reward is available if the information leads to a conviction.

Other wildfires that have burned portions of Washington and Idaho this summer have been determined to be human-caused. The North Star fire, which has burned about 335 square miles on the Colville Indian Reservation south of Republic, has been blamed on human activity. Officials also believe human activity is responsible for the Sleepy Hollow fire, a blaze on private land near Wenatchee that burned about two dozen homes and set fire to downtown businesses in late June.

The Carpenter Road fire is 95 percent contained, with a crew of 350 firefighters continuing to mop up the flames. All mandatory evacuations have been lifted.

Rain likely will aid firefighting efforts in the area later this week. Forecasters with the National Weather Service predict widespread showers and thunderstorms Wednesday night into Thursday.

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