Fire near Cle Elum declared arson

THORP – Amber Schlichting cried when she heard the news Saturday: Her family’s home was one of two houses destroyed in a wind-fanned wildfire that roared through a nearby canyon a day earlier.

To many, that wasn’t even the worst news delivered Saturday, as local officials announced the fire was the work of an arsonist. The fire was the 11th blaze started by a firebug in central Washington’s Kittitas County in the past two months, but the first to destroy structures.

Two homes, including Schlichting’s, and a workshop burned in the blaze.

The arson cases are draining local officials and residents, Kittitas County Undersheriff Clayton Myers said.

“It’s had a substantial impact on us. It’s stressing our resources. In fact, we’ve moved beyond what our resources can handle,” he said.

About 100 homes remained evacuated. The state incident management team took control of the firefighting effort Saturday morning, and by midday the fire was estimated at about 300 acres and zero percent contained. More than 400 firefighters were assigned to the fire.

No injuries have been reported.

A state of emergency was declared in Kittitas County. The Red Cross provided food and cots for evacuees at a local high school, where children played in the front yard and dogs sat tied under the shade of trees.

Helicopters dropped water and planes spread retardant to prevent the fire’s spread. Firefighters hoped to continue to channel the fire away from nearby forests, but they remained concerned about high winds, said Dave Johnson, incident commander for Washington state.

“There’s a lot of fire still in the trees. The concern is about the wind coming in and blowing that up,” he said. “Where the wind goes is where it’s going to take it.”

A day earlier, 25 mph winds pushed the fire through a canyon from its start near I-90 between Cle Elum and Ellensburg. One home burned at the canyon’s edge, while another was the victim of a spot fire across a narrow dirt and gravel road.

Many homes had just barely been saved by firefighters, Myers said. At some houses, the fire lapped at the front door.

Schlichting, 20, and her family weren’t so lucky. She sobbed upon learning their mobile home of two months had burned, as boyfriend Alex Hoover cried quietly, his head on her shoulder. Their 20-month-old daughter, Ashley, sat on Hoover’s lap.

“I still just can’t believe it. They tell me everything’s gone. Nothing’s left,” Schlichting said later. “It doesn’t even feel like reality. It’s our first home.”

Firefighters gave them two minutes to get out, Schlichting said, which was only enough time to load their daughter, pets and photos of her late father in the car.

The fire started at about noon Friday. Myers announced Saturday the blaze was believed to be linked to 10 other arsons this year. Another half-dozen arsons from last summer also remain unsolved.

All of the fires have similarities, Myers said. Most have been set in the afternoon, in areas with plenty of fuel, such as dry grass or timber, and near homes and highway access.

No one has claimed responsibility.

The sheriff’s department offered a $10,000 reward for information in the case.

About 900 firefighters continued taking on blazes in other parts of central Washington. The Pot Peak-Sisi Ridge complex of four fires west of Lake Chelan had burned more than 40 square miles and was half contained by Saturday afternoon. It had burned two recreational buildings and was threatening the community of Stehekin, though fire officials said there was no imminent danger.

The lightning-caused Rattlesnake Peak fire 40 miles west of Yakima had burned about 373 acres, but was burning in heavy fuel in an area that had not burned for 60 years.

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