OKANOGAN, Wash. – Wildfires burned tens of thousands of acres of Eastern Washington and burned dozens of homes Monday, fueled by high winds, low humidity and dry conditions.
A fire destroyed most of the Whitman County town of Malden, led to evacuations in Okanogan County, outside of Spangle and Airway Heights in Spokane County, and in Colfax and Malden in Whitman County. At one point, more than 60,000 people across the region lost power because of wind and fire. And many were stuck in traffic outside of Ritzville as roads were closed due to poor visibility on one of the busiest travel days of the year.
According to the National Weather Service in Spokane, all of Washington and North Idaho were at risk of fire because of the plentiful fuel, low humidity and windy conditions. Some areas such as Ritzville and Moses Lake were at greater risk because of even higher winds.
Mark Turner, a National Weather Service meteorologist, said several factors worsened conditions related to the fires, dust storms and traffic issues, including freshly plowed fields, holiday travel and extremely dry conditions.
“There are just so many things that added up to what we see in front of us today,” he said.
According to the warning the National Weather Service issued Monday, wind speeds ranged from 20-25 mph, with some reaching 40 mph. Humidity was between 6% and 13%.
Spokane Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer said many first responders had expected several fires to spark after months with little to no rain.
“Sixty plus days without any rain, the fuels cured and we had perfect conditions for fires today,” Schaeffer said.
He said Spokane Fire Department firefighters traveled to several area fires to assist with containment efforts.
As of 8 p.m. Monday, more than 60,000 electric customers were without power in the Inland Northwest.
Avista Utilities reported 33,000 customers out about 4 p.m., including 5,200 in Spokane, 4,500 in Sandpoint and 5,600 in and near Coeur d’Alene. That number had fallen to about 24,000 by about 7 p.m.
Casey Fielder, spokeswoman for Avista, said crews were still trying to get a handle on the damage. But customers should expect one to two days without power.
“We are really in assessment mode as wind blew throughout the day,” Fielder said. “As we are able to assess more, we will have more information about estimated restoration times.”
Inland Power and Light reported 10,300 customers without power, nearly a quarter of all of Inland’s customers. However, that number grew to nearly 14,000 by 7:15 p.m. Like Avista customers, Inland Power expected outages to last potentially into Thursday.
“These winds have caused the spread of numerous wildfires and our crews’ priority has been responding to emergency situations to make sure that our infrastructure is safe and to de-energize lines as needed by fire personnel,” Inland Power wrote on its website. “Winds have started to die down, and our crews are beginning to assess the damage caused by the wind and restore power where it is safe.”
Kootenai Electric Cooperative reported 11,200 outages. Areas hit particularly hard were on the western side of Lake Coeur d’Alene and the Athol and Twin Lakes areas.
Northern Lights Inc., which serves much of Bonner and Boundary counties and some parts of Western Montana, reported nearly 11,500 outages. The utility had restored some power and listed about 10,600 outages as of 7:30 p.m.
Fire in Okanogan County jumps Columbia
A wildfire threatened the towns of Bridgeport and Mansfield in Douglas County after it started Sunday night in Okanogan County, grew to 10,000 acres and jumped the Columbia River.
The Cold Springs-Canyon Pearl Hill Fire started about 3 miles south of Omak at about 9 p.m., according to the Mount Tolman Fire Dispatch Center.
By 12:30 p.m. Monday, both towns were without power after numerous reports of downed power lines, and authorities ordered residents to evacuate as a wall of smoke and dust towered over the area.
By 2 p.m., the fire had reached the South Jameson Lake drainage area and was progressing toward U.S. Highway 2. Bridgeport and Mansfield were under Level 3 evacuation orders, meaning “Get out now.” Authorities were beginning to order evacuations for residents of the Moses Coulee and Rimrock Meadows areas.
Residents were being told to leave toward Brewster and contact the Red Cross at (509) 670-5331 if they needed shelter assistance, according to the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office.
Manthy Salcido, who lives 3 miles from Mansfield, said residents were asked to evacuate to the town’s high school because it was too dangerous to flee.
Salcido and her husband moved to Mansfield after they lost their home in Okanogan County in the massive Carlton Complex fire in 2014.
The couple was visiting Colorado this weekend but was coordinating with their 22-year-old son, who was gathering their possessions and preparing to prevent the fire from entering the property.
“It has already surrounded two of our good neighbors,” Salcido said early Monday afternoon.
She said area farmers were working with firefighters to build fire lines around Mansfield and other nearby homes.
“We have guys who go out and put everything on the line,” Salcido said. “We have an amazing town and an amazing support system.”
The Washington State Patrol closed state Highway 172 in both directions between Mansfield and McNeil Canyon Road west of the town. At the request of the Okanogan County sheriff, the WSP also closed U.S. Highway 97 from Malott to the Okanogan city limits, Trooper John Bryant said.
Troopers were urging motorists to avoid the roads amid numerous reported accidents because of poor visibility.
The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office said farmers were helping local authorities dig a fire line around the eastern and northern boundaries of Mansfield.
The NCW Fairgrounds were open for residents to shelter livestock during the evacuations. The sheriff’s office said those needing to shelter livestock should call (509) 745-8480.
The fire also moved south toward 12 Tribes Casino Resort in Omak, where it arrived at about 10 a.m Monday. Fire crews were able to stop the fire at the casino.
The past few years haven’t been bad as far as wildfires go, Omak resident Shane Grooms said. But he was worried this weekend. At about noon Monday the fire turned back toward Grooms’ home.
Then Saturday night what he believes to be an arsonist set multiple fires, the closest just a mile up the road from his home.
“It started about a mile up the road here last night,” Grooms said. “We knew about it last night probably at 9 or 10.”
The fire on Cameron Lake Cutoff Road burned through the night moving south toward 12 Tribes Casino Resort, where it arrived at about 10 a.m Sunday.
Grooms, who coaches high school football and works as a production supervisor at a food manufacturing plant, has lived in Omak since 1984.
“I have been tracking this thing for half of the day. It wasn’t until noon it started burning back towards my place,” Grooms said.
Since then, he has been preparing to evacuate with his sons and dog, a boxer named Rocky.
Despite concern, Grooms said his sons are handling it well.
“They just kind of go with the flow,” Grooms said. “They’re going to do whatever dad does or whatever he tells them to do.”
Grooms hopes to stay at his house as long as possible but is under no illusions there will be resources nearby to save his house if the fire gets too close.
“I’m not opposed to letting it burn,” Grooms said. “I think this fire has spread out so much between Bridgeport and Mainsfield that we’re a little low on manpower.”
Just a few miles away in Okanogan, Sara Cram was sitting in her house on the river and worrying. Late Sunday night the fire was lighting up the sky across the Okanogan River.
“The sky was red and the moon was up,” Cram said.
Then Monday morning the fire crept over the ridge with visible flames.
“The sun was blood red,” Cram said. “It was just a big ball of fire.”
As the day wore on, the fire moved down the ridge toward the river and a pile of railroad ties on tribal land, just across the river from Cram’s home.
“We just watched the fire jump the ridge, go down the hill, cross the highway,” Cram said. “I said ‘I wonder if it’s going to get those railroad ties.’ ”
The fire ignited the railroad ties at the Okanogan River’s bank minutes later.
“They just exploded. They were practically snap, crackling, popping like Rice Krispies,” Cram said.
Cram and her partner, Mike Menalia, decided it was time to pack up just in case the fire jumped the river.
“Fortunately, the wind has been blowing predominately to the south,” Cram said. “We’re crossing our fingers. We’ve got everything packed to go if we need to.”
As of 7 p.m. Monday, night flames were visible with trees igniting, but the fire had yet to jump the river.
Fire on West Plains
At least one home burned Monday afternoon in a fire that also forced the evacuation of numerous West Plains residents.
A ranch-style home along with at least one outbuilding burned northwest of U.S. Highway 2 and Christensen Road.
Officials issued mandatory evacuation orders to residents north of Highway 2 between Deep Creek and Brooks roads, as a fire blown by strong winds quickly expanded .
Priest Lake damage
At Priest Lake, vacationers and homeowners on the final day of their Labor Day weekend watched as whitecaps formed on the water and trees started coming down around them.
Pecky Cox, who runs several Facebook pages for lake residents and fans, said as many as 50 trees were down in the Indian Creek Campground on the east side. From her place on Kalispell Bay, she fielded reports from all over the lake about unmoored boats, missing dock furniture, downed trees and even stranded campers on Bartoo Island.
Strong winds toppled trees, knocked out power and carried smoke and dust from Central Washington wildfires .
Even the “flower boat,” an old fishing boat moored offshore and planted each spring with flowers, was no match for the storm, and it sank.
She promised it would return.
No trees had fallen on her home at Kalispell Bay.
“But my neighbor on the left had a huge tree, a beautiful tree … (fall) but it did not hit his house, and then my neighbor on the right had a humongous tree fall, and it missed his house by a few inches. All in all, we were lucky. We don’t have power, and I think that is going to be the problem for now.”
At Twin Lakes, Idaho, just north of Rathdrum, several trees blew down across the roads and several homeowners had tree limbs or trees fall onto their structures. It was unknown late Monday about any reports of injuries.
The wind also knocked out power to Silverwood Theme Park, which closed for the day and offered refunds to those who had purchased tickets.
Fallen trees and branches impeded traffic in multiple locations in Spokane, as well. KHQ reported tree limbs snapped and had fallen on power lines near Francis Avenue and Cannon Street, breaking some lines.
Fires in Colfax, Davenport
A fire erupted Monday morning near Colfax and quickly burned hundreds of acres, forcing residents to evacuate and stretching thin local firefighting resources.
The fire started at about 10:40 a.m. and was threatening crops, city residents and infrastructure and the Port of Whitman airport. The state fire marshal’s office reported the fire had burned from 500 to 1,000 acres. Level 3 evacuation orders – meaning “Get out now” – were in effect.
State firefighting resources were authorized to assist local fire districts at about 12:15 p.m. Two wildfire strike teams and a structural fire strike team were deployed.
At about 1 p.m. the Pullman Police Department said residents fleeing nearby Colfax could shelter at the new Pullman City Hall recreation building at 190 S.E. Crestview St. Red Cross representatives were stationed at the building.
Media reports indicated at least a couple homes burned in the fire.
Pullman Radio News reported local fire districts needed farmers to stop harvesting Monday to avoid sparking additional fires in their dry fields.
Just before 2 p.m., the state Department of Natural Resources reported another fire, dubbed the Whitney Fire, had burned about 600 acres of timber, brush, grass and crops near Davenport. The DNR said the fire was still growing, and Level 2 evacuation notices were in place for about 100 threatened homes.
Blowing dust, winds and fire danger closed roads outside of Ritzville and across the Grant County line, including Interstate 90.
According to the a tweet from the Washington State Department of Transportation, I-90 from the Grant County line to Ritzville was closed as well as U.S. 395 from Ritzville to state Highway 26, U.S. 2 from state Route 172 to state Route 17, and numerous other roads.
By late evening, however, the WSDOT Twitter account announced 395 and other state highways had reopened.
Thomas Clouse, Carolyn Lamberson and Jonathan Brunt contributed to this report.
This story was changed on Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020 to correct the date that the fire in Okanogan County turned toward the home of Shane Grooms.