By Shannon Dininny Associated Press
CLE ELUM — Desperate neighbors tried to cut fire lines with hand tools to help protect property threatened by a fast-moving wildfire that destroyed at least 70 homes and burned across more than 40 square miles on the east slope of the Cascades.
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.
By Tuesday night, the fire was 10 percent contained, incident commander Rex Reed said. The containment line was built around the southeast corner of the Taylor Bridge Fire.
In addition to the homes, Reed estimated that several hundred outbuildings have burned. At least 900 people have been evacuated. No injuries have been reported.
Firefighters were trying to keep the blaze out of heavy timber to the north. If the flames reach that abundant source of dry fuel, “that adds a whole new equation,” Reed said.
The fire started Monday at a bridge construction site. A number of homes that burned were along Bettas Road near Cle Elum.
The grass fire was suddenly whipped up by the wind and came directly toward the group, causing them to scatter. Everyone made it away safely, and the fire slowed, allowing a man with a water truck to dampen the perimeter of the house just in time to save it from the blaze.
Fire commanders estimated the fire has burned across at least 28,000 acres, or almost 44 square miles. Fire crews were arriving from across the state. By Tuesday evening, more than 400 firefighters and support workers were on hand.
Joe Seemiller, a captain in Kittitas County Fire and Rescue, and his crews monitored the edge of the fire Tuesday near the Yakima River, trying to keep it from crossing where there is a subdivision of homes nearby on the other side.
“Unless Mother Nature helps us out here, we’re going to be fighting this awhile,” Seemiller said.
Air support from the Washington National Guard has been called in.
The fire also threatened a chimpanzee sanctuary. “They definitely know there’s weirdness happening,” Outreach Director Diana Goodrich said Tuesday.
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. Dry terrain and windy conditions pushed it quickly.
Chane Roghair, 39, worked to dampen hot spots around his 1,300-acre ranch of beef cattle and quarter horses.
Roghair had tanker trucks around his two hay barns to keep them from going up in flames when the fire passed through Monday, and he spent the night keeping watch and dousing spot fires.
No buildings or livestock were lost — his 30 goats hustled down the hill toward the house when the ridge caught fire — but the fire destroyed the original homestead that had been empty for years.
Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark briefly traveled into the burned area where the fire started. In the distance, black smoke rose from a burning home in a subdivision across the river.
The unusual amount of light fuels created by the cool, damp spring coupled with high temperatures and windy conditions now make for fires so destructive they are impossible to hold or suppress, Goldmark said.
On the east side of the mountains, the winds were supposed to begin to die down Wednesday.
Vacation homes and cabins pepper the scattered forests around Cle Elum.
Brad Rorem and his two sons were at their family cabin preparing to float the Yakima River when they spotted the blaze under the bridge from their deck.
“It sort of erupted, and the wind was blowing hard in our faces,” he said. “It just shot up so fast.”
The homes of at least three neighbors were gone, said Rorem, 50, of North Bend.
Neighbors John Thometz and Miriam Greenman watched from a side road as another neighbor’s home went up in flames. They couldn’t tell which home burned.
Thometz had a close call with an arson fire in 2004, but this is the closest flames have gotten to his property.
“This one here is the tinder box,” he said. “This is the bad one.”
Greenman left with her 6-year-old son, Nathaniel, a handful of clothes and some of his favorite toys to comfort him. Their fish stayed behind.
“I feel bad about the fish, but I figured he was in water and he’d have to tough it out.”
Area firefighters respond
As of Tuesday evening, 15 firefighters from Snohomish County were helping fight the blaze, said Travis Hots, Getchell fire chief and the county’s wildland fire resource coordinator.
Local agencies also sent a team of fire engines specially designed for fighting brush- and wildland-type fires, he said. The firefighters in part are working to save homes and buildings. They are from fire districts in Getchell, Lake Stevens, Monroe and Gold Bar.
Additional personnel and resources were on standby in case they’re needed.