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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Nespelem ‘fire storm’ stretches tribal, state resources: ‘This is usually what we expect in August’

NESPELEM, WASH. – Firefighters made progress on Friday battling a wildfire that destroyed four homes and forced a town to evacuate, although thunder, lightning and wind in the forecast could change the situation quickly.

The Chuweah Creek fire, near Nespelem on the Colville Reservation, grew to 34,694 acres and was 20% contained Friday evening. That was a slight increase in acreage from Thursday.

Firefighters focused on the eastern line of the fire along the Keller Butte Road, said fire spokeswoman Liv Stecker. Officials are worried that if the fire does crest the ridge there, it could threaten homes east of U.S. Highway 21.

“Once we get over this ridge, this corridor has a lot of homes,” Stecker said. “That’s why it’s important to hold it here.”

About a dozen homes remained under a Level 2 evacuation order along Cache Creek Road. Those homes will likely be moved to a Level 1 evacuation order Saturday morning, according to fire spokeswoman Mary Bean.

However, with thunderstorms and wind in the forecast – combined with historically dry and hot conditions that have stretched regional fire resources – Bean said things could change.

“At this point, any lightning is concerning because we are having record low relative humidity. Record heat. All of those conditions, as well as potential wind,” she said. “This is usually what we expect in August.”

The fire started Monday night southeast of Nespelem after about 60 lightning strikes hit the ground, according to the National Weather Service. Whipped by wind and fueled with tall grass, sagebrush and timber, the fire burned 10,000 acres that night and forced the evacuation of Nespelem and other areas.

Four occupied homes burned and seven other buildings were destroyed, according to officials. The Red Cross set up an aid station at the Lake Roosevelt High School gym at Coulee Dam.

As of Friday, there were 275 fire personnel on scene from the U.S. Forest Service, the Colville Tribe, the Washington Department of Natural Resources and private operations.

On Wednesday, the Federal Emergency Management Agency authorized funds for the Chuweah Creek Fire.

Fires on the Colville Reservation aren’t new. Last year, the Inchelium Complex burned 19,400 acres. And in 2015, fires burned 20% of the 1.4 million-acre reservation.

That history, combined with the weather forecast, worries Colville Tribal Chairman Andrew “Badger” Joseph Jr.

Joseph said Friday he’d spoken with Governor Jay Inslee, who may tour the fire area next week. He also spoke to Rep. Dan Newhouse and representatives from Sen. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell.

He told each lawmaker the same thing: The Tribe needs more funding for firefighting and suppression efforts, both this summer and into the future.

“We don’t have enough manpower,” he said Friday. “This is the earliest I have ever seen a fire storm.”