Flames shot from the top of a group of trees about a quarter mile from Mandy Thompson’s house as the Hazard Hill fire raged in North Spokane County Sunday night.
“You just feel insignificant when you see something like that, how big it was,” Thompson said. “I mean the flames are just dancing off those trees.”
One firefighter was injured, a travel trailer was lost and one structure was damaged after wildfire near Elk, north of Spokane, forced evacuations Sunday night.
The fire was one of two blazes that caused immediate evacuations Sunday evening in northern Spokane County.
Level 2 evacuations remained in place for the Hardesty Valley fire where the damage and injury occurred, according to Spokane County Fire District 4. Tree fallers along with other crews will work on containment lines and putting out hot spots Monday, the fire district said. About 50 firefighters were working the fire as of Monday afternoon.
The Hardesty Valley fire was reported near 6800 E. Valley Road in Elk and spread quickly to the northwest, said Spokane County Fire District 4 Capt. Megan Hill. The fire is about two miles south of the Pend Oreille County line and a mile east of U.S. Highway 2.
In the early stages of the fire, a travel trailer was damaged, but the home it was parked next to was untouched by the flames, Hill said. The gutters on another building melted and siding was damaged, but the house itself didn’t catch fire, Hill said.
One firefighter got heat exhaustion and was sent to a local hospital, Hill said.
“He’s home resting and doing good,” Hill said Monday afternoon.
As of Monday morning, the Hazard Hill fire had burned approximately 50 to 70 acres, according to the fire district.
The fire was reported late Sunday afternoon at about 5:50 p.m. Thompson was at Walmart at about 6:30 p.m. and saw smoke, not realizing the fire was near her home, she said.
When the family returned to their Monroe Road home at about 7 p.m., a huge pillar of smoke was visible nearby, she said.
Not long after, she noticed visible flames in a cluster of trees on the other side of the large field behind the old barn on her property that houses antique farm equipment.
“I thought to myself there’s only those trees between our field and our home and those flames,” Thompson said.
Firefighters were working on the blaze and would get it under control, she said, before a few minutes later the flames would erupt again.
From her house, Thompson said she could hear the fire that was leaping 6 to 10 feet off the top of the trees, she said.
At about 2 a.m., Thompson got worried the field separating her barn from the trees would catch fire, she said. She began digging a small ditch behind the barn in hopes of slowing the fire if it came that way.
“It felt like the apocalypse because it was dark at that time and all you could see was those flames,” Thompson said.
Thompson never evacuated and the fire didn’t spread past the trees, she said.
Crews planned to establish fire lines Monday with additional resources set to arrive from outside of Spokane. Three strike teams were on scene Monday afternoon with more than 75 personnel, Hill said.
No structures were lost overnight and no one was injured, the fire district said. The cause of the fire was still under investigation and Level 2 evacuations remained in place as of 9 a.m. Monday.
By Monday afternoon, Thompson said the wind had moved much of the smoke out of the area, but it was still hazy.
With an intense early wildfire season, the firefighters at the Spokane Fire Department are already exhausted. Chief Brian Schaeffer is consistently being asked to send firefighters to wildland fires, he said.
“Depending on the season’s variability, it can be every month, it could be every week, it could be every day,” Schaeffer said. “And as we saw yesterday, it could be multiple times in a day.”
The Spokane Fire Department was 100% staffed Sunday, Schaeffer said. They triaged incidents: Those with the highest threat to life got the most resources, he said.
“The system that we have in Spokane County is based on a deployment model that is very flexible,” Schaeffer said. “We’re able to move resources across boundaries very fluidly.”
An area coordinator is always on call to work with the dispatch centers to direct response from the Spokane and Spokane Valley fire departments along with county fire districts.
Often fire agencies know to be prepared when a red flag warning is issued for the area, but with Sunday, “it was simply dry fuels, low humidity, a slight breeze and opportunity,” Schaeffer said.
With some of the 350 firefighters in the city of Spokane sent off to other fires in the region, the fire department has mandated overtime for the workers under Schaeffer’s purview. Attending firefighters are paid by the entity managing the wildfire with costs for travel, working and backfilling that person’s seat on the engine all covered, Schaeffer said.
“From a financial situation, we’re out nothing and we gain the experience,” Schaffer said. “There’s a measurable benefit there.”
While there is a benefit to gaining experience on wildfires outside of Spokane, the deployments do place a strain on the system, he said.
“For the system though, it places additional work and stress on the remaining firefighters that aren’t deployed,” Schaeffer said.
After a record-breaking heat wave early in the summer, the wildfire season on the West Coast has gotten off to an early start. F irefighters already are exhausted, Schaeffer said.
Many firefighters are also taking vacations this summer after working overtime during the COVID-19 pandemic, he said.
On Monday, a caller reported seeing smoke and burning trees in a field near Palouse Highway. Because of the high likelihood of spread, multiple brush trucks responded. Under normal circumstances with just one caller, only one truck would have responded to evaluate the situation, Schaeffer said. It turned out to be a false alarm, but it’s better to attack brush fires fast and hard, Schaeffer said.
“We want to keep them small if at all possible,” he said. “We attempt to overwhelm the fire with resources and really aggressive tactics before they grow to the point at which they become project fires.”
The two fires reported Sunday evening in North Spokane County burned into timber and spread quickly despite a rapid response from area fire agencies, Schaeffer said.
“We had aircraft in the air as fast as we could,” Schaeffer said, but the fires already had a stronghold in the timber.
While crews were able to save all the homes in the area, just losing a travel trailer, the fires are now projects that will take days to contain, Schaeffer said.
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