Crews were able Friday to contain a brush fire that apparently started with spontaneous combustion and grew to threaten homes and cause evacuations near the Sunset Highway west of downtown Spokane .
Aircraft, including four planes and two helicopters, assisted fire crews as smoke rose from the blaze in the afternoon . Guy Gifford, spokesperson for the state Department of Natural Resources, said the fire burned between 10 and 20 acres.
Though the fire completely contained by about 6:30 p.m., crews were set to remain on site to put out any hot spots and monitor the area for at least the next 24 hours.
Gifford said a level 3 evacuation was ordered for about 25 homes in the area bounded by Greenwood at the north, Sunset Frontage to the south, Basalt on the east and Russell to the west. A level 2 evacuation was ordered for the area north of Greenwood to Deno.
Evacuation orders were lifted for the area around 4 p.m., after crews confirmed the fire was contained, Spokane Fire spokesperson Jamie McIntyre said. No structures were lost in the fire.
Investigators determined the fire was sparked when a pile of natural debris spontaneously combusted, McIntyre said. The pile had likely been there for several years and was dry enough to spark under the right conditions of high temperatures and low humidity.
About 100 firefighters were on scene from multiple agencies at the blaze’s peak, including the city of Spokane, Bureau of Land Management, DNR and Fish and Wildlife, plus several local fire departments, according to Spokane Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer.
According to Schaeffer, city fire crews were called to the 6300 block of West Sunset Frontage Road around 11 a.m. for a fast-moving brush fire. The blaze began in dry grass and brush, then quickly jumped to surrounding pine trees as wind gusts of up to 25 miles per hour fanned the flames, Schaeffer said.
A combination of heat, low humidity and wind, plus at least 40 years’ worth of dry fuel under the trees, meant the fire spread extremely quickly and “erratically,” Schaeffer said.
That heat and low humidity will continue into next week as Eastern and Central Washington remain under an excessive heat warning. Jeffrey Cote, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Spokane office, said temperatures are expected to reach 100 by Sunday and stay there until Wednesday, when light breezes are anticipated to help cool the region down.
From Sunday night to Monday, there is a 20% chance of thunderstorms in the area, Cote said, but those are likely to be “dry” – all of the lightning and wind without the rain. Dry lightning and strong gusts would be likely to cause more brush fires, Cote said.
Conditions like those that helped spread the Sunset Fire are usually foreseen by NWS and shared with fire agencies at daily briefings, Cote said. The agency had predicted Friday would be gusty and dry, but the factors that spark a fire – often humans – are nearly impossible to predict, Cote said.
Due to the fire’s size and complexity, Schaeffer estimated it could be days or weeks before a cause can be confirmed.
Grove Road has been closed to traffic as crews continue work on the fire. The nearby Sunset Highway remains open, Gifford said.
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