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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Crime/Public Safety

‘It’s the worst I’ve ever seen’: Fires force evacuations at both ends of Colville Reservation

UPDATED: Wed., Sept. 9, 2020

Three fires that started Monday on the Colville Reservation have burned about 16,000 acres and continued to grow Tuesday as winds roaring to 55 mph fanned the flames, said Rodney Cawston, chairman of the Colville Business Council.

The fires, collectively called the Inchelium Complex Fires, include the Inchelium Highway, Fry and Kewa Field fires, according to the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center.

Cawston said he worried high winds and hot, dry conditions could help the three fires spread while fire crews are focused on the much larger Cold Springs and Pearl Hill fires, which had together burned roughly 170,000 acres at the western end of the Colville Reservation as of Tuesday evening.

At least seven tribal members’ homes in the Omak area had been lost in those fires, Cawston said, adding that more structures have likely also been lost, including the Omak Wood Products and Precision Pine mills.

Level 3 evacuations have been ordered in many of the communities around both Omak and Inchelium.

There have been phone, internet and power outages in parts of the reservation, so Cawston said tribal members have had to go door to door to order evacuations.

“I don’t think we’ve ever seen anything like this happen before, where power has been out almost all across the reservation as well as internet and cell service,” he said.

“And then with the fire crews in the state and federal government already stretched so thin, and also here on our reservation, I think that perfect storm has hit us.”

Power outages overnight also meant gas stations were closed, so people had trouble getting gas, Cawston said.

People are bringing livestock to fairgrounds in Okanogan and to the Nespelem rodeo grounds.

Cawston said he is concerned about the three smaller fires around Inchelium spreading because right now it’s only local fire crews and the tribal crews from the Mount Tolman Fire Center fighting those fires.

“They don’t really have a lot of resources up there right now, so the potential for those fires to grow right now is pretty scary and I don’t think they’re going to get any help, probably, until later this afternoon,” Cawston said. “So we’re just going hour by hour here to do whatever we can, just trying to keep people safe.”

The cause of the fires is unknown and still under investigation.

“It’s the worst I’ve ever seen on the reservation, at least during my time,” Cawston said, referring to the blazes at both ends of the reservation.

Orion Donovan-Smith's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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