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

‘It almost sounded like a warzone’: Wind-whipped fire thrashes the town of Medical Lake, stirring memories of 1991 fire storm

From staff reports

From staff reports

Thousands of people fled the Medical Lake area as a wildfire burned thousands of acres, dozens of homes and left one person dead following days of 100-degree temperatures and critical winds that erupted Friday into one of the Spokane region’s worst natural disasters.

Firefighters could not stop the flames blowing into the town west of Spokane. Homes were razed, and flames scorched the grounds of Eastern State Hospital but left the buildings of the psychiatric campus standing. Fire also burned to the doorsteps of Hallett Elementary School, which was left standing with the help of helicopter pilots who kept dumping water drawn from Medical Lake.

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.

“It almost sounded like a war zone,” said Leming, whose apartment building had been spared. “All of a sudden it went, ‘Whoosh!’ and I had to get out of there.”

“Just as I was leaving, ‘Boom!’ ” he said. “You could hear the propane tanks going off.”

At the Cheney High School evacuation center, Donna Schaaf recounted her close call with the fire.

She was in the shower when police pounded on her door.

“Get out of here right now!” they shouted.

She grabbed her dog, but the cats wouldn’t leave. She was able to push them out the door, trusting they would survive.

She drove down the road a little ways, with flames shooting across in front of her.

Schaaf turned around, and a man she didn’t even know, who was driving behind her, flagged her down.

“Get into my truck. I’m going to get you and your dog out of here,” he said.

They drove around frantically, with fire and smoke everywhere. She was disoriented, but eventually they got to his house on Silver Lake. He loaded her into his boat with three others and they sped across the lake, where his mother tied up the boat and got into another pickup truck before they “got the hell out of there.” The fire jumped across the lake as they were in the boat.

Her daughter and son-in-law were just returning from a vacation to Mexico and were not allowed to return to the home. Instead, police at a road block gave her the number of the evacuation center. So she called and asked them to find her mom. Volunteers wrote Schaaf’s name on a sticky note and compared it to the sign-in sheet that helps keep track of people and find family.

The two soon connected.

“They were very excited to find me, but I don’t think they know if they have a home,” Schaaf said Friday evening.

Travis Baldwin went to Medical Lake to help his dad evacuate from the 800 block of East Barker Street.

Then a trailer about a half-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 ton of water over it, Baldwin said. “The fire just kind of raged through, and the winds just kept pushing it.”

While water-dropping aircraft focused on saving the city of 5,000 residents, embers pushed aloft by sustained winds of 25 mph and gusting to 35 mph blew across small lakes, roads and Interstate 90 to start new fires miles away in fields and forests.

Most families evacuated with their pets and most important belongings. Some tried to stay to protect their homes by digging fire lines and spraying homes with hoses. But the fire approached so fast that people dropped everything to run to their vehicles and flee.

Spokane County Commissioner Al French, who represents the West Plains, compared the disaster to the firestorms of October 1991 that destroyed 112 homes and killed two people.

“That fire was exacerbated by high winds, which is what is happening here,” French said around 5 p.m.

The fire was first reported south of Lakeland Village just before 12:30 p.m. By about 2:15 p.m., Spokane County Fire District 10 said it had grown to about 500 acres amid bumper-to-bumper traffic leaving town.

Many people grabbed backpacks with only their critical belongings as they hurried to their cars.

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

Roads were closed going into town, and multiple planes and helicopters arrived as thick dark smoke billowed from the fire that was chewing its way into town.

Called the Gray Fire, the blaze jumped from town across nearby Silver Lake by 3:30 p.m. Small fires were spotting some 3 miles to the east as the size of the fire surpassed 700 acres and claimed multiple structures and cell towers.

After 4 p.m., much of the area was under Level 3 “Leave Now” evacuation orders.

Dozens of police officers from Spokane Valley, the City of Spokane and elsewhere converged on the area going door-to-door along Craig Road, north of Four Lakes, urging people to leave.

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

Within a minute of one couple being told to leave, flames crested a hill behind their home. Another few minutes later, 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 landing ahead.

About 100 people, including volunteers and evacuees, were at the overnight shelter at Cheney High School on Friday evening.

One person at the shelter, Donna Orr, said she freed her horse, Sheyanne, before she fled. She wrote her number down and tied it around the horse’s neck, hoping someone would call.

She left with her partner, Dennis White, two Dachshunds, one cat and five kittens. The only things she brought other than four-legged animals was the deed to her house, a 6-acre family farm near Cheney, and birth certificates. They had spent the early part of the afternoon watching the fire intensify from the deck of their dream house they bought four years ago.

Police then showed up after the fire jumped I-90 and insisted “You have to go now,” Orr said. They were pressed for time, and the horse was resistant to getting into the trailer, “so we left Sheyanne.”

Residents at Eastern State Hospital and Lakeland Village Residential Habilitation Center had remained sheltered in place as of 8:30 p.m. Friday, the state Department of Social and Human Services wrote in an announcement.

The state agency wrote they did not anticipate evacuation orders at either facility but remained prepared and ready to evacuate staff and patients.

“We encourage our staff and everyone in the Medical Lake area to stay safe and alert, and to follow local emergency guidance,” the announcement read.

By nightfall, traffic jams in and around Cheney were miles long as evacuees sought safety and emergency supplies.

Amy Anderson’s Medical Lake home had been spared as of around 6:30 p.m., but she said three homes belonging to her friends were 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.”

Reporting by Colin Tiernan, Emma Epperly, Colin Mulvany, Michael Wright, Tod Stephens and Emry Dinman.