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Wednesday, May 27, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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An errant squirrel likely started 4,500-acre fire in Benton City

A Kennewick firefighter burns grass to contain the Wagon Wheel Fire on Monday. (Kennewick Fire Department)
A Kennewick firefighter burns grass to contain the Wagon Wheel Fire on Monday. (Kennewick Fire Department)
By Cameron Probert Tri-City Herald

A squirrel that caused a short circuit in a electric transformer is suspected of starting a 4,500-acre wildfire that threatened 50 homes in the Benton City area over the holiday weekend.

Investigators are still putting together a final report on the cause of the blaze that started in a backyard along Wagon Wheel PR Northwest about 2 p.m. Saturday.

When firefighters arrived, they couldn’t immediately reach the burning area, said Chief Ron Duncan, Benton County Fire District 2.

They had seven trucks in the area within minutes, but irrigation canals, fences and other obstacles blocked their access, he said. The fire, fed by 10-mph winds, quickly turned toward nearby homes, and firefighters began working to protect them.

They steered the fire around the house, but four cars, a mini-bus and boat burned. People in other homes were asked to evacuate as a precaution.

Duncan said they were able to stop the fire with the help of the fire break they dig each year along the ridge.

The rural fire department had help from Kennewick, Richland and Pasco fire crews, Benton County fire districts 1, 4, 5 and 6, Franklin County fire districts 3 and 5, along with crews from Walla Walla, the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife.

They brought in five planes to help control the fire on the northern edge to protect the Arid Lands Ecology, or ALE, and Rattlesnake Mountain on the Hanford nuclear reservation.

The fire burned privately-owned range land and Bureau of Land Management property.

The fire highlighted the need for people to maintain defensible spaces around their homes, Duncan said. While firefighters were able to stop the blaze from reaching houses, it was close in some cases.

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