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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Spokane

Fire, power crews struggle to catch up to aftermath of Tuesday night storms

UPDATED: Thu., July 25, 2019

One bulldozer, four fire bosses, one helicopter and two air tankers were involved in fighting the Graham Fire west of Cheney on Wednesday. (Jared Brown, SR)
One bulldozer, four fire bosses, one helicopter and two air tankers were involved in fighting the Graham Fire west of Cheney on Wednesday. (Jared Brown, SR)
By Will Campbell and Jared Brown The Spokesman-Review

The day after a major thunderstorm moved through Eastern Washington and North Idaho, igniting more than 20 fires in Spokane County and contributing to power outages that affected more than 21,000 customers, crews worked Wednesday to fight four large blazes south of Cheney and bring back power to more than a thousand homes.

Tuesday night’s storm blew over trees and sparked numerous fires, most of which were quickly doused by firefighters or heavy rain. Nearly 300 bolts of lightning struck the ground in Spokane County and gusts of wind reached as high as 62 mph.

All told, Spokane County’s fire departments responded to 96 incidents from the storm, according to Spokane fire Chief Brian Schaeffer.

He said he was not aware of any injuries due to the storm.

Department of Natural Resources fire crews around northeast Washington were dispatched to 60 fires Tuesday night and early Wednesday from the lightning strikes. said Forrest Owenby, spokesman for the state agency.

The work of overnight strained many fire departments as they surveyed for lightning strikes, but the work wasn’t over Wednesday, when multiple agencies worked to fight a complex of four wildfires near Cheney that led to evacuations and the closure of state Highway 904.

The bulk of the resources deployed Wednesday were focused on the Graham Fire south of state Highway 904.

That fire grew to 104 acres by Wednesday evening, burning grass, brush and timber and threatening homes and other structures, DNR spokeswoman Isabelle Hoygaard said.

Officials ordered the evacuation of 10 homes near the intersection of Griffith Road and Highway 904 and put another 16 residences on notice to be ready to leave at any time, according to the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office. Those evacuation orders were lifted around 10 p.m., when the highway was reopened after being closed to establish a fire line.

Four fire boss aircraft, two helicopters and two large air tankers knocked down flames while two bulldozers and several hand crews were digging fire lines.

Spokane County Fire District 3 Chief Cody Rohrbach was optimistic crews would be successful in that effort.

“It looks like we’re gonna keep it south of the highway,” he said.

Two other fires – the Badger Lake Fire, between Badger and Williams lakes, and the Badger Fire, located near Cossalman Road north of the lake – also drew significant fire department resources.

The Badger Lake Fire, which was first reported just before noon, burned about 21 acres. The Badger Fire was first reported at about 3:45 p.m. and burned an estimated 16 acres before it was fully contained at 8 p.m.

The Grogan Fire east of Chapman Lake was of the least concern to fire departments by Wednesday afternoon. It burned about 20 acres of grass, brush and timber. It was 100% contained just before 8 p.m., as crews worked to clear flammable material near the fire line.

At 8 p.m., the four fires were combined under the Cheney Complex Fire and moved to a Type 3 incident management team, or IMT, to oversee them for the next several days. Rohrback said the IMT would help relieve the strain on local resources and fully contain the fires.

Trooper Jeff Sevigney, a Washington State Patrol spokesman, said lightning strikes started all four fires.

Rohrbach said District 3 crews responded to an estimated 14 blazes Wednesday, and more than 100 people from DNR and county departments helped to fight those fires.

Tuesday night’s storm also left Avista Utilities depleted and caused 500 separate outages. Contract crews and workers in unaffected areas had to be called in to repair damage on Wednesday.

“Crews were out all night and will be out all day,” said Kim Vollan, Avista spokeswoman.

At one point, more than 21,000 people in the region did not have power. Most had power restored by 8 a.m., but 4,700 Avista still did not have electricity at that time.

“It was really caused as strong winds knocked down trees and tree limbs” into poles and equipment, Vollan said. She added that lightning was behind some damage.

As of 8 p.m. Wednesday, approximately 200 outages remained, leaving 1,304 customers without power.

Nearby, Inland Power and Light Co. reported two customers without power at that time. Close to 225 customers of Northern Lights Inc. based in Sagle, Idaho, did not have electricity. All homes served by Kootenai Electric Cooperative had power.

Vollan warned people to stay away from downed lines and contact Avista about any unreported damage.

“We will continue working as safely and quickly as possible to complete restoration,” Vollan said.

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