A powerful lightning storm that blew through Spokane late Tuesday and early Wednesday knocked out power to nearly 30,000 Inland Northwest power customers.
The storm blew over trees and sparked numerous fires, most of which were quickly doused by firefighters or heavy rain.
One of the victims of the fires, Staci Hoefling, was asleep at her house at 22 E. Gordon Ave. and woke up to a flash of lightning.
“I had smelled something like a barbecue,” she said.
The lightning hit a power line and caught her neighbor’s shed on fire, which spread to the neighbor’s house, completely charring the inside of the house, she said.
“It started coming this way because of the wind,” she said.
The fire spread to her detached garage, and wind blew the heat onto her house, melting the siding. Three people, six cats, a dog and a snake were able to escape Hoefling’s house and her neighbors escaped unharmed too, she said.
“Everybody’s really lucky,” Hoefling said.
The National Weather Service recorded nearly 3,500 lightning strikes that hit the ground in Eastern Washington, North Idaho and the western edge of Montana. The Spokane International Airport recorded a gust of 61 mph and Felts Field recorded one at 62 mph.
Avista Utilities reported outages affected more than 21,000 customers at the peak at about 11 p.m. Inland Power and Light reported 3,500 outages. About 6,500 customers of Northern Lights Inc. based in Sagle, Idaho lost power as did about 30 Vera Water and Power customers in Spokane Valley. Outages also were reported by Kootenai Electric Cooperative and the Pend Oreille Public Utility District.
Power to most customers who lost it in the storm was restored by 8 a.m., but 4,700 Avista customers and 2,600 Northern Lights customers still were without electricity.
“Crews were out all night and will be out all day,” said Kim Vollan, Avista spokeswoman.
City of Spokane crews were working Tuesday morning to remove 26 trees from city streets. One was blocking an arterial; the rest were blocking residential streets, said spokeswoman Marlene Feist. City workers set up generators at some traffic lights near Interstate 90 in downtown Spokane.
Spokane Fire Department Chief Brian Schaeffer said firefighters responded to multiple structure fires, in addition to the two in Spokane Valley. He said he was not aware of any injuries due to the storm.
Fire crews across the county were focusing their efforts Wednesday morning on identifying and surveying lightning strike areas so potential smoldering embers don’t turn in fires.
High winds expected on Wednesday may increase the threat of dormant embers becoming fires, he said.
“Despite the rain we had yesterday, that wind can perpetuate the fire growth,” Schaeffer said. “The Fire Department is really on edge right now.”
All of Spokane County’s fire departments responded to a total of 96 incidents from the storm, according to Schaeffer, and more than half of them were from the Spokane Fire Department.
The weather service reported that 0.23 inches of rain fell at the Spokane International Airport Tuesday night and early Wednesday. Felts Field recorded 0.29 inches. So far, Spokane has received about a half inch of rain in July, which is near normal, said Robin Fox, a weather service meteorologist.
Department of Natural Resources fire crews around Northeast Washington were dispatched to 60 fires Tuesday night and early this morning from the lightning storm, said Forrest Ownby, spokesman for the Washington Department of Natural Resources.
“It sounds like most of the fires stayed small,” he said.
Street lights in locations around Spokane were out due to to the outages, causing a higher amount of traffic than normal, Schaeffer said.
“Traffic was backed up across the Maple Street Bridge from downtown,” he said.
Much of Browne’s Addition remained without power Wednesday morning.
Brian Kelley stared out his window in his Browne’s Addition apartment at about 9 p.m. when he saw two consecutive lightning strikes that caused significant damage.
“It was like, boom! boom!” he said.
The first strike hit a tree at Oak Street and Second Avenue and split it three ways down the middle. The tree crashed into the street, hitting some power lines on the way down, but not harming them, he said.
His neighbor, Janna Oxos, heard the strikes and the tree falling from the back of the apartment complex, and she dropped to the ground.
“It was like a war zone,” she said.
The second lightning strike hit a tree near Rosauers. That tree crashed into the intersection of Second Avenue and Elm Street and, pulling down power lines and causing a brush fire on a patch of shrubs near the street.
“It was a pretty big brush fire,” said Marshall Powell, who witnessed the fire.
No one was hurt by either of the falling trees, which had not been cleared by late Wednesday morning.
Hundreds of homes in Browne’s Addition lost power, including Rosauers, which had not yet been restored by Wednesday morning. Customers pulling into the parking lot were met by workers who turned them away.
Powell, a general manager at The Elk Public House, 1931 W. Pacific Ave., was working in the restaurant when the power went out at around 9 p.m. It not been restored by Wednesday morning.
He said most people cleared out when the lights shut off, but a few regulars continued to drink and payed with cash while workers brought out candles for light.
Spokane Valley responded to two house fires within four hours.
A suspected lightning strike caused a house to catch fire at 10300 block of East 44th Ave. at about 9:50 p.m.
A neighbor heard a loud boom, and when he went outside to investigate, he found a fire in the garage of the house. He called 911 and alerted the resident of the fire, according to a news release from the Spokane Valley Fire Department. Crews responded and put out the fire.
The cause is under investigation.
A house at the 8500 block of East Cataldo Ave. caught fire at about 1:30 a.m. from lightning striking a tree.
The tree fell and knocked down a power line, and it caused electrical wiring in the attic of the house to catch fire, according to a news release from the Spokane Valley Fire Department.
Firefighters responded, but efforts were stalled by the downed power lines, according to the news release. Crews cut holes in the attic to attack the fire and ensure it was out.
Local journalism is essential.
The journalists of The Spokesman-Review are a part of the community. They live here. They work here. They care. You can help keep local journalism strong right now with your contribution. Thank you.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.