Washington wildfire forces evacuation of small town; sheriff says 35 homes have burned

Nicholas K. Geranios / The Associated Press
July 17, 2014 02:54 AM

A helicopter dumps a load of water onto one of the fires burning on a ridge west of Leavenworth, Wash., Thursday, July 17, 2014. The fire chased people from nearly 900 homes as it burned near the Bavarian-themed village of Leavenworth. The Chiwaukum Creek Fire sent a light dusting of ash over Leavenworth, where the German-style motif provides a backdrop to Oktoberfest and a Christmas tree lighting festival. (AP Photo/The Seattle Times, Mike Siegel)

SPOKANE, Wash. - A small north-central Washington town and a nearby hospital have been evacuated ahead of a wind-whipped wildfire that has already burned at least 35 homes, authorities said.

Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers said late Thursday he's heard of no injuries from the Carlton Complex of wildfires.

The sheriff issued his highest evacuation notice Thursday for Pateros, a town of about 650 people along the Columbia River. Residents drove south to Chelan. A hospital in nearby Brewster was evacuated as a precaution, with the patients sent to Omak.

"The whole town was evacuated," Rogers said in a telephone interview as he drove the eight-mile stretch between Brewster and Pateros. "It was a chaotic mess but we got everybody on the highway."

"There's nobody in Pateros" except a few "stragglers" who stayed, he said, adding the fire was burning in the town, although the small business district was believed intact.

Rogers said perhaps 15-20 homes have burned in Pateros and another 20 homes in the Twisp-Winthrop area. He had no estimate of how many homes have burned in the entire county of about 40,000 people.

The situation in Brewster, population about 2,400, was "pretty good," Rogers said. "It looks like Brewster's OK."

A law enforcement officer in the county for 30 years, and sheriff for 12, Rogers said this fire is the worst he's seen. All of his officers are working and help is coming from nearby Chelan and Douglas counties.

"Hold on," he said as he drove, "I've gotta go through a little bit of fire."

He said the fire had jumped U.S. Highway 97 between Brewster and Pateros and was burning along the Columbia. Sections of several highways were closed in the county.

Early Friday, the Okanogan County Sheriff's dispatch office said the roughly 300 residents of the Chiliwist Valley, about 15 miles north of Pateros, evacuated late Thursday night.

Two major power lines, one feeding Pateros and one feeding Winthrop and Twisp, have burned, causing a widespread power outage in the county, said Scott Miller, the county's emergency manager.

The Carlton Complex of fires has burned across at least 28 square miles of the scenic Methow Valley. Fire spokesmen were not able to provide updated acreage Thursday night. There is zero containment on the complex, one of two major wildfires burning in central Washington.

"Our personnel have been so busy they're not able to get back to us quickly," fire spokesman Tim Perciful said from an incident command post where the electricity was out due to the fire.

For Friday's fire fight, "We're trying to get more state resources," Perciful said.

About 100 miles to the south, the Chiwaukum Creek Fire chased people from nearly 900 homes as it burned near the Bavarian-themed village of Leavenworth.

That fire sent a light dusting of ash over Leavenworth, where the German-style motif provides a backdrop to Oktoberfest and a Christmas tree lighting festival.

The fire's smoke plume rose 25,000 feet into the air. The blaze closed 15 miles of U.S. Highway 2 in the area.

"There's a huge cloud of smoke above us," Don Hurst, a retired firefighter who lives just outside of Leavenworth, said Thursday morning. "The winds started to pick up a little. It's just like snowfall here with the ash coming down. It's fine ash. We're getting all this ash fall."

Residents of 860 homes have been told they should leave immediately, fire officials said. Another 800 homes were less seriously threatened.

Authorities said Thursday that the Chiwaukum Creek Fire has grown to more than 10 square miles. It was first detected Tuesday.

"The weather and winds are not in our favour," said fire spokeswoman Mary Bean. Temperatures have been in the triple digits with winds gusting as high as 30 mph.

She said the cause of the fire is under investigation.

About 1,000 firefighters were fighting blazes around the state that included the Mills Canyon Fire, the state's largest at 35 square miles.

Worsening wildfire activity has prompted the governor's offices in both Washington and Oregon to declare states of emergency, a move that allows state officials to call up the National Guard.

Elsewhere across the West:

— OREGON: Two different lightning-sparked wildfires grew quickly in hot and dry conditions in central Oregon on Thursday, prompting evacuation alerts.

Authorities said the Bridge 99 fire in the Cascade Range 20 miles north of Sisters tripled in size and threatened rural homes along the Metolius River. A top-level evacuation advisory urged residents to leave their homes immediately.

In the Ochoco Mountains about 20 miles east of Prineville, the Bailey Butte Fire grew after getting into heavy timber in a wilderness area, prompting the Crook County Sheriff's office to advise residents of 27 homes to leave. The evacuation area included the Mount Bachelor Academy, which was shut down by the state in 2009 amid allegations it mistreated troubled teens. U.S. Highway 26 remained closed at the Ochoco Summit near Mitchell.

They were among 13 large fires burning across Oregon.

— UTAH: A wildfire encroaching on homes in the Tooele County town of Stockton had burned about 200 acres. Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands spokesman Jason Curry said the fire burned part of a water tower but it's believed no homes have been destroyed. A 27-year-old Tooele man has been arrested on charges that he ignited the fire with matches. Police said the suspect, Timothy West, was a volunteer firefighter for the town several years ago, Curry told The Salt Lake Tribune.

— IDAHO: In central Idaho, the lightning-caused Preacher Fire has scorched more than 50 square miles, burning quickly through grass and brush. More than 300 personnel have been called in to suppress a wildfire inside the Boise National Forest that tripled in size overnight and is steadily spreading. The lightning-caused Whiskey Complex Fire consumed 7 square miles of forest land as of Thursday.


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