NESPELEM — Emergency evacuations are in place for the town of Nespelem and surrounding areas in southeast Okanogan County due to active wildfires caused by lightning.
The Chuweah Creek Fire, the largest of six in the area, has burned about 10,000 acres and 14 structures, said Andy Joseph Jr., chairman of the Colville Business Council.
Of the 14 burned structures, seven were homes and seven were outbuildings, Joseph said. He added that three of the homes were occupied.
The fire was reported at 7:15 p.m. Monday southeast of Nespelem, according to a news release from the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Indian Reservation.
The fire is driven by wind and is burning in tall grass, sagebrush and timber, the release said. Structures are threatened. Local authorities have requested the aid of an incident management team and crews from the state Department of Natural Resources.
Level 3 evacuations — get out now — are still in place for residents of Nespelem, Owhi Flats along Cache Creek Road, and Colville Indian Agency. Nespelem is a town of about 200 located 15 miles north of the Grand Coulee Dam.
“A lot of people had to just pick up and leave their homes,” Joseph said in an interview Tuesday.
He added that livestock have been killed in the fire and some owners have euthanized their animals to avoid unnecessary suffering, Joseph said.
Forty community members evacuated to a gymnasium in Lake Roosevelt and elders residing at the Colville Tribal Convalescent Center were moved to a hotel in Coulee Dam, said Neeka Somday, a legislative assistant who joined Joseph in the interview. Others have gone to an RV park in Omak. The Red Cross is operating a shelter at the Coulee Dam High School gymnasium.
Inmates of the Colville Tribal Correctional Facility, located roughly a mile west of the fire, were evacuated to jails in Lincoln, Okanogan and Grant counties, Joseph said. The facility housed 25 inmates prior to the fire, according to its daily roster.
Joseph said the air was too smoky for aircraft to work on the fire, but he’s spoken with Gov. Jay Inslee for help. He noted that there could be reported fires in the area from the dry lightning storm that caused the Chuweah Creek Fire.
He lamented the fire weather conditions are among the worst he’s seen.
“It’s probably one of the driest summers that I’ve ever seen in my lifetime,” Joseph said.
He’s concerned that there are factors in place for the fire season to rival 2015 when the Okanogan Complex burned more that 300,000 acres.
“We’re hoping that it doesn’t get that bad but it has the highest potential to get that bad,” Joseph said.