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Devastating wildfires destroy homes, claim two lives in Spokane County

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(The Center Square) – Efforts continued Monday to combat two wind-driven wildland fires that swept across parts of Spokane County over the weekend, claiming two lives, razing an estimated 300 structures, prompting immediate evacuations and closing Interstate 90 between Spokane and the town of Sprague.

Firefighters remain on scene at both the Gray Fire, which flared around 12:27 p.m. Friday about 15 miles west of Spokane near Medical Lake, and the Oregon Fire, which was reported around 4 p.m. four miles northeast of the small community of Elk in north Spokane County.

Causes of both fires were under investigation, said officials from the state Department of Natural Resources.

One person was found dead within each fire area, according to authorities and news reports. It was not immediately known if either victim had been identified.

The Gray Fire has burned an estimated 10,014 acres and was 10% contained, according to the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center. To date, 372 personnel have been deployed including seven hand crews and 47 engines. At least 185 homes have been lost and 850 other mixed residential structures were threatened by the fire, which is burning in timber, tall grass, and brush. The Red Cross has established an evacuation shelter at Spokane Falls Community College.

The Oregon Fire was estimated at 10,137 acres and 0% contained, with 463 personnel deployed including 13 hand crews, 38 fire engines and eight bulldozers. A Red Cross evacuation shelter has been set up at Riverside High School in Chattaroy for displaced persons.

The Spokane County Fairgrounds is available to shelter large animals or livestock from evacuated areas. officials said.

Authorities said aerial resources had not yet been deployed on the two fires because of heavy smoke limiting pilot visibility.

Threats posed by the Gray Road Fire traveling along and crossing Interstate 90 prompted the Washington State Patrol and state Department of Transportation to closed east- and westbound lanes of the freeway around 4:40 p.m. Friday between west Spokane and the town of Sprague. On Monday morning, the closure size was reduced from 25 to 13 miles, between mile posts 257 and 270 near the unincorporated communities of Tyler and Four Lakes. Traffic is being detoured onto State Route 904 and US Highways 2 and 195. Officials said fire suppression efforts will be stepped up in that corridor, then it will be assessed for safety conditions – particularly hazardous trees along the roadway – before reopening.

During a press conference Sunday, Spokane County sheriff John Nowels and rural fire chiefs Cody Rohrbach of District 3 and Bill Neckels of District 4 all urged the public and displaced residents to refrain from entering or returning to areas still under evacuation orders or badly damaged by fire.

Rohrbach said the Gray fire remains “very active” with “very challenging, very hazardous conditions.” He noted that some firefighters who live in the areas have lost their own homes.

“We ask the public to be patient,” said Nowels. “We understand there’s a lot of anxiety … but it’s really unsafe.”

Nowels said law enforcement personnel have been patrolling and securing the areas to prevent potential looting.

State Attorney General Bob Ferguson issued a news release Monday saying his office would be “on the lookout” for area businesses and hotels raising prices on essential goods and services, including shelter, “aimed at exploiting the misfortune of Washingtonians impacted by the wildfires.”

He encouraged anyone who feels they’re a victim of price-gouging to contact his office.

Fire officials are also stressing that the public should not be deploying unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, within the affected areas. If fire-suppression planes and helicopters are utilized, drones pose a serious threat to the aircraft which “fly low and fast,” said authorities. Drone operators who intrude into a fire space are subject to Federal Aviation Administration violations with civil penalties ranging up to $27,500 plus possible criminal prosecution.

Neckels said the weather has “moderated a little bit,” enabling firefighters to expand containment lines and focus more on structure protection. In coming days, he said, efforts will go toward a better determination of the number of structures which have been damaged or destroyed.

Gov. Jay Inslee and state Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz both visited Spokane this weekend to meet with local officials and first responders. Inslee issued a state emergency disaster proclamation, and another disaster declaration has been issued by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Inslee thanked Spokane-area residents for donations and volunteer service to help the affected communities. He also commended to protect vulnerable populations that sheltered in place at two state facilities in Medical Lake: Eastern State Mental Hospital and Lakeland Village, which cares for persons with developmental disabilities.

Franz noted in a Facebook post that “the last 36 hours have been hard” for both area residents and firefighters. “To all our neighbors and firefighters, be safe,” she said. “We want you all to come back home.”

The state lands commissioner had issued a public warning Friday morning in anticipation of the high winds that combined with a week of low humidity and 100-degree weather in posing a critical threat of wildfires across the region. During Friday’s online presentation, she referenced the September 2021 fire which destroyed much of the small town of Malden in south Spokane County.

This weekend’s blazes were similarly devastating, said Franz.

In addition to the Spokane fires, the Winona Fire further south in Whitman County near Colfax has burned an estimated 2,500 acres of grass and brush. It was reported to be 40% contained on Sunday with one primary structure and several secondary structures destroyed. The fire was initially reported Friday afternoon.

In western Washington, the Sourdough Fire near Newhalem has burned nearly 6,000 acres in rugged, timbered terrain since its start in late July. That fire has closed a 50-mile portion of State Route 20, the North Cascades Highway, between Newhalem and Silver Star Campground east of Washington Pass. More than 300 personnel with 15 engines, five water tankers and seven helicopters are deployed on the fire, which is 12% contained.

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