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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Brush fire near Fairchild burns structures, forces evacuations before crews stop its growth

UPDATED: Thu., Aug. 27, 2020

A 165-acre wildfire on the West Plains burned several structures, forced the closure of State Route 902, and led to the evacuation of homes and parts of Fairchild Air Force Base before crews brought it under some control Thursday evening.

The fire started at 12:32 p.m., according to a State Fire Marshal Office news release and moved into Fairchild about an hour later.

As of 6:30 p.m., the fire was 25% contained and fire crews had stopped its forward movement, though they did not have a full line around the perimeter of the blaze.

The cause was under investigation.

No injuries were reported, but 154 students at U.S. Air Force Survival School were forced to evacuate their barracks on the southern end of the base, said Col. Cassius Bentley, commander of the 92nd Air Refueling Wing.

As of Thursday evening, Bentley expected students would be able to return, but separate housing was prepared for them on the base.

Washington Department of Natural Resources announced a Level 3 evacuation, saying “get out now,” in a 3:30 p.m. tweet, which resulted in at least 19 homes being evacuated along Bartholomew Road off State Route 902.

The fire burned through grass fast, appearing to lay down flat as it sped forward at wind speeds of up to 20 mph, said Airway Heights fire Chief Mitch Metzger.

Some 100-foot trees caught on fire, sending flames into the sky and shooting sparks forward, which started new fires ahead of the main line of flames, Spokane Fire District 3 Chief Cody Rohrbach said, speaking at Fairchild at around 6:30 p.m., with red fire retardant still speckled on his glasses from fighting the blaze.

The fire became “very unpredictable” as winds shifted from north to east, forcing firefighters to battle multiple heads of the wildfire, said Kimo Kuheana, 92nd Civil Engineer Squadron fire chief.

At least 14 agencies pitched in to fight the fast-growing fire, including crews from Fairchild, the city of Spokane, Spokane Valley and Stevens County, Metzger said. About 150 personnel and at least 10 aircraft, including helicopters and small and heavy planes tackled it, he said.

Bentley said “seamless” cooperative efforts and familiar relationships between agencies saved the day.

“Big thank you to the community,” Bentley said. “It’s impressive to see what can be done when you have a strong relationship.”

A Fairchild Air Force Base watch tower was among the structures lost or damaged in the blaze.

Washington State Patrol Chief John Batiste authorized state involvement Thursday afternoon, and three teams of fire crews were ordered.

Bartholomew and Welcome roads remained closed into the evening, and Sevigney asked people to avoid parking on the side of the highway to allow traffic to flow normally and firefighters to do their work.

The highway between Craig and Graham roads was also closed to assist those fighting the fire, according to the Washington State Patrol.

Britt DeTienne, a spokesman for the Spokane Regional Airport, said airport operations were not threatened.

The U.S. West has been at elevated fire risk for the last month, with the most serious fires in California and Arizona. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, 1.5 million acres have burned this season across the two states.

Fires in California have killed half a dozen people and destroyed hundreds of structures. President Donald Trump made a major disaster declaration for the state last week and promised federal assistance.

According to the Washington State Department of Natural Resources wildfire information website, almost all of Eastern and central Washington is at high risk of fire danger due to the dry conditions, heat and wind.

Several fires are currently burning across central and Eastern Washington, and weather conditions could soon compound that fire danger.

Low humidity and wind is expected on Saturday that could fuel a new or existing fire, according to a National Weather Service warning. While Friday’s fire risk isn’t as high as Saturday, dry weather and some wind is expected.

According to Thursday’s DNR Intelligence report, the agency had been involved in nine fires in the previous 72 hours. Though the state is at an elevated fire risk, the most recent data released by the agency shows that fires have burned less acreage this year than in the past five years.

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