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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

UPDATES: Medical Lake and surrounding area ordered to evacuate as large fire spreads

From staff reports The Spokesman-Review

UPDATE, 8:25 P.M.: The city of Cheney is no longer in an evacuation zone, said Eric Keller of the state Department of Natural Resources.

UPDATE, 8:20 P.M.: Spokane County Sheriff’s Cpl. Mark Gregory said one person has been found dead in an area burned by the fire. He did not have immediate details about the location of the body.

UPDATE, 7:50 P.M.: The National Weather Service reported that winds that drove this afternoon’s devasting fires were out of west-to-southwest. Sustained winds this afternoon were between 20-25 mph and they gusted up to 37. The wind was expected to shift between 7:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. from the north to northwest.

UPDATE 7:45 P.M.: With the city of Cheney now under a Level 2 evacuation, 15 Spokane Transit Authority and 6 school busses are standing by at the Cheney Red Cross evacuation shelter in case level 3 evacuation is ordered.

UPDATE, 7:30 P.M.: Reports from journalists on the ground indicate that most the homes that have burned within the city of Medical Lake have been south of Campbell Street. 

Kent Reitmeier, a Medical Lake resident who has a weed spraying business, filed up a 500-gallon tank on a trailer and traversed the town to help fight spot fires that firefighters were too busy to douse.

He was around Hallett Elementary School in the southern part of Medical Lake when the fire went though. Although some homes in the area were destroyed and the grounds surrounding the school were charred, the school itself remained standing as of around 6:30 p.m. with the help of helicopter pilots who kept dumping water on the fire from Medical Lake.

“Those guys did a wonderful job around Hallett,” Reitmeier said.

Medical Lake resident Jerry Leming said he saw at least five homes on fire south of Campbell Street. He said he kept hearing explosions as the fire raged in and around the town.

“All of sudden, it went whoosh and I had to get out of there. Just as I was leaving, ‘boom,’ you could hear the propane tanks going off,” said Leming, who lives at Hearthstone Apartment, which remained standing. “It almost sounded like a warzone.” 

Around that time, tires of destroyed vehicles remained burning along with the ruble of two homes at the end of Prentis Street, one with only a chimney left standing. Since the homes already were lost and the blaze had pushed well beyond them, there were no firefighters working directly on the flames at the lost homes any longer.

Elsewhere in town, many had turned on their sprinklers to prevent the spread. 

Amy Anderson’s Medical Lake house had been sparred as of around 6:30 p.m., but she said that three homes belonging to her friends had been destroyed.

“My animals are safe. My daughter is safe. So I guess that’s what matters,” Anderson said. “But this is just going to devastate our little town.”

Travis Baldwin went to Medical Lake to help his dad, who lives on the 800 block of East Barker Street evacuate. Then a trailer about a half a block away caught fire.

“My dad ran over, he grabbed a hose and I grabbed a hose and we tried to put it out,” Baldwin said.

The fire jumped to a nearby garage but with the help of another local and his pumper truck the group was able to keep the blaze from spreading.

“The fire helicopters came and just started dumping a (expletive) ton of water over it,” Baldwin said. “The fire just kind of raged through and the winds just kept pushing it,” Baldwin said.

The helicopters stalled the blaze saving much of downtown Medical Lake. Everything north of Lake Street was largely untouched, Baldwin said. “The fire seemed to have seriously moved on,” he said.

As of about 7 p.m., crews were battling intense flames east of Medical Lake along the western shores of Silver Lake.

UPDATE, 7:25 P.M.: The city of Cheney is now under a Level 2 evacuation advisory, meaning residents should be prepared to leave but aren’t yet required to, Eastern Washington University said. 

UPDATE, 6:20 P.M.: Gov. Jay Inslee issued this statement: “My thoughts are with the Medical Lake, WA, residents who have been ordered to evacuate as the Gray Fire grows,” he said. “I’m also praying for the safety of the first responders working to contain the fire. May you all remain safe and out of harm’s way.”

UPDATE, 6 P.M.: Closures along Interstate 90 have been expanded. The highway is closed westbound at the U.S. 2 interchange in Spokane, and eastbound travel is closed at the Tyler exit. 

Some areas of Medical Lake have lost power as utility poles have caught fire.

UPDATE, 5:30 P.M.: Eastern State Hospital has been evacuated, according to Spokane County Sheriff John Nowels.

Nowels insisted that nearby residents evacuate immediately. Evacuees are instructed to travel to the Red Cross Shelter at Cheney High School. 

“We’ve had people who have disregarded the evacuation orders and decided to stay in place, not believing that this fire would threaten them, and we’ve had to go rescue them with our air resources,” Nowels said. “It endangers our fire personnel, it endangers our law enforcement personnel.”

State resource mobilization has been authorized and strike teams are enroute, according to Washington Department of Natural Resources public information officer Eric Keller.

Harold McCandless sipped from a water bottle as a sprinkler twitched across the roof of his four lakes home, Friday afternoon just before 5 p.m.

His coworker, Morgan Wichman, had arrived after evacuating his childhood bus driver from her home close to the fire.

The two men hooked up McCandless boat, grabbed essentials from the home he has lived in since 1977 and waited.

Not long after, a Spokane County Sheriff’s deputy pulled up and told them to evacuate, the fire was heading there way.

McCandless wasn’t worried about his house though just keeping himself and his neighbors safe.

“Whatever happens happens,” he said with a shrug.

UPDATE, 5:20 P.M.: Interstate I-90 is being closed between mileposts 250 and 257. Drivers will need to detour using state Route 904. The fire has reportedly jumped I-90 just southwest of Four Lakes, according to the state Department of Transportation.

UPDATE, 5:15 P.M.: Twenty Air National Guard members have arrived at Eastern State Hospital to help evacuate patients and staff. Many homes and other structures have been lost to the fire, according to the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office.

Cheney High School remains the only active Red Cross shelter.

Medical Lake School Board member Ron Cooper who lives northeast of the city sat at home Friday afternoon, looking south and watching smoke plume in the distance. His father-in-law evacuated Medical Lake that day and took shelter at Cooper’s home.

“The smoke isn’t coming to our house yet,” Cooper said. “It looks pretty hairy out this way.”

Emergency responders sent a memo to Medical Lake-area bus drivers on Friday, asking for help transporting evacuees. School board member Laura Parsons was out of town visiting family when she got the alert Friday. She said her son evacuated the city Friday with his dogs to a pet-friendly hotel near the John A. Finch Arboretum.

Parsons’ son saw flames close to the middle school before he evacuated, she said.

“This is terrible,” she said. “If the schools are damaged, it’s a whole other tragedy. Trying to figure out how to get the kids to school and all that. Plus all the people’s houses that are already burnt down.”

Hallett Elementary School was threatened by the fire around 4:30 p.m., according to a reporter who was nearby, though it’s not immediately clear whether the structure was damaged. 

UPDATE, 5 P.M.: The fire is estimated at 3,000 acres and remains 0% contained. Multiple structures have reportedly been destroyed. The Shriners Event Center at 7217 W. Westbow Boulevard in Spokane has opened to evacuees.

Spokane County Commissioner Al French, whose district includes Medical Lake, said he is closely monitoring the situation and ready to be of support if needed.

French compared the disaster to the firestorms that destroyed many homes in Spokane Valley in 1991.

“That fire was exacerabated by high winds, which is what is happening here,” French said. “The winds are not our friend in this situation.”

UPDATE, 4:45 P.M.: The fire remains 0% contained and crews are struggling to prevent its eastward advance, Keller said.

“It’s not stopped,” Keller said. “We’re trying to get around it, we’ve got multiple resources on it, winds causing lots of problems.”

UPDATE, 4:30 P.M.: All prior Level 2 evacuation orders have been upgraded to Level 3 “Leave Now” orders. Residents between Silver Lake, Interstate 90 and West Hallett Road must leave immediately, in addition to anyone previously ordered to leave. 

Law enforcement officers are going door-to-door along Craig Road, north of Four Lakes, knocking on doors and urging residents to leave. 

The winds sent burning embers several miles east of Medical Lake into the area where Taylor and Medifor roads meet.

Dozens of police officers were racing from house to house in the area just west of Four Lakes telling people to leave immediately.

Within a minute of one couple being told the leave, flames crested a hill behind their home. Within minutes, the entire hill and nearby pine trees were engulfed in flames that reached 100 feet in the air.

The sound of the fire was akin to a dozen freight trains roaring past.

The house on Medifor then caught fire, and officers kept moving to homes to the east telling people they had perhaps minutes before the fast-moving fire arrived.

With airplanes focused on water drops at Medical Lake, there were no planes hitting the ember-sparked fires to the east.

Nor were firefighting rigs able to get in front of the fire as embers kept blowing ahead and starting fires.

UPDATE, 4:15 P.M.: A collision has blocked one lane of eastbound Interstate 90 near milepost 279, just east of the U.S. 195 interchange. 

UPDATE, 4 P.M.: Level 3 “Leave Now” evacuations have been issued for residents east of Silver Lake, south of West Taylor Road and west of Interstate 90. Level 2 evacuation notices, warning residents to be ready to leave at a moment’s notice, have been issued for those north of West Taylor Road and south of West Hallett Road.

UPDATE, 3:30 P.M.: The Gray Fire has jumped to the east side of Silver Lake. Evacuation orders now include the east bank of Silver Lake and 3 miles further to the east. The size of the fire is estimated at 700 acres and multiple structures, including cell towers, are now involved.

Original story: 

A fire sparked near Medical Lake Friday afternoon and is spreading quickly and forcing evacuations of the whole city. 

The fire was reported south of Lakeland Village just before 12:30 p.m. The fire reached an estimated 500 acres as of 2:15 p.m., according to social media posts from Spokane County Fire District 10.

Hundreds fled Medical Lake Friday afternoon in nearly bumper-to-bumper traffic after evacuation warnings were sent out, with many carrying backpacks with their belongings as they got into their cars.

“This is not good,” Medical Lake resident Richard O’Leary said while watching the fire from across the water in Coney Island Park. “This is pretty serious because there’s a pathway into town.”

State Route 902 is closed in both directions along the entire length of the highway, except for emergency vehicles and those evacuating out of Medical Lake, according to the state Department of Transportation. Spokane Transit Authority has deployed buses to Medical Lake High School to assist in evacuation efforts. 

Air resources arrived as thick, dark smoke billowed up from the fire that had 40 foot flames. Firefighters expected the blaze to reach Fancher Road by 2:30 p.m.

A thick plume of smoke that blew well into Spokane made visibility poor in much of the West Plains. The fire had reached the southern end of Medical Lake by about 2:30 p.m.

Residents West to Gray road, east to Clear Lake, south to Medical Lake Tyler Road and north to Greengate Lane were asked to evacuate immediately Friday afternoon, according to Spokane County Emergency Management. That Level 3 evacuation was expanded to include the city of Medical Lake around 2:30 p.m., according to Spokane County Fire District 10.

Those living in Lakeland Village along with residents of Eastern State Hospital, Martin Hall and Pine Lodge were asked to shelter in place but be ready to evacuate. 

A shelter is open at Cheney High School. 

Dozens of fire crews responded quickly with the weather creating prime fire conditions. Following an extremely dry week, a strong breeze Friday led to dangerous fire conditions, prompting the National Weather Service Spokane to issue a red flag warning. Gusts of up to 35 mph continued were pushing the fire east as of 3 p.m.

This story was reported by Colin Tiernan, Emma Epperly, Michael Wright, Tod Stephens, Ellen Dennis, Emry Dinman, Colin Mulvany, Tyler Tjomsland and Zak Curley.