Central Washington wildfire burns 70 homes; 900 evacuated

CLE ELUM — A fast-moving wildfire has burned 70 homes across nearly 40 square miles of central Washington grassland, timber and sagebrush.

Gusty winds and high temperatures hampered efforts Tuesday to deal with the fire burning on grassland, timber and sagebrush east of Cle Elum, a small central Washington town about 75 miles east of Seattle.

At least 900 people have been evacuated, but no injuries were reported from the blaze, which began at a bridge construction site Monday afternoon.

Fire commanders estimated the blaze has burned at least 28,000 acres, or 44 square miles, since it started Monday afternoon east of the town of Cle Elum.

The fire crept within six miles of Ellensburg, about 75 miles east of Seattle.

The blaze, which began at a bridge construction site, is not contained. Authorities worried about wind and heat, saying the fire danger was extreme.

“We’ve had a long prolonged dry period — three weeks with no precipitation at all,” Reed said.

Joe Seemiller, captain in Kittitas County Fire and Rescue, and his crews monitored the edge of the fire near the Yakima River, trying to keep it from crossing where there is a subdivision of homes nearby on the other side.

He said Monday they were battling what felt like 50 to 60 mph wind gusts and it was still gusty Tuesday.

“Unless Mother Nature helps us out here, we’re going to be fighting this awhile,” Seemiller said.

About 15 evacuees stayed overnight at Munson Hall on the Central Washington University campus in Ellensburg, said spokesman Robert Lowery. The building is a dormitory usually used for conferences and could take a total of 150 evacuees, he said.

The fire also threatened a chimpanzee sanctuary. “They definitely know there’s weirdness happening,” Outreach Director Diana Goodrich said Tuesday. “There are still fire trucks here, and they’re curious about them.”

The state Transportation Department said a 14-mile section of U.S. Highway 97 was closed because of the fire.

The fire started along Highway 10 between Ellensburg and Cle Elum, said Kent Verbeck, a commissioner and one of the volunteers with Fire District 7.

“It went on up the hillside in an area where there are some pretty nice homes, and it burned up there,” Verbeck said. “There may be cabins and outbuildings as well.”

Verbeck was on the fire line until early Tuesday.

“A lot of the area is sagebrush, which is really dry and burning with a pretty good flame,” he said. “Lot of dry terrain with the wind going the right way, and it just kept going,” Verbeck said.

“It eventually got so big and spread so much late last night we were dealing with miles of fire front,” he said.

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