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News / Northwest

Second death reported as Medical Lake, Elk wildfires grow overnight, crews work to protect property

By The Spokesman-Review
Published: August 21, 2023, 7:21am

SPOKANE — A second person was found dead within areas of Spokane County consumed by wildfires that erupted Friday afternoon.

Spokane County Sheriff Cpl. Mark Gregory said a body was found inside the area burned by the Oregon Road fire in North Spokane County on Sunday afternoon. A cause of death had not been determined.

Another person was found dead in the Gray fire, which burned hundreds of homes and buildings in Medical Lake and the surrounding area Friday. That fire has grown to 12,000 acres and is considered 10% contained.

Firefighters made progress toward securing the northern perimeter around Medical Lake and Four Lakes, said Fire District 3 Chief Cody Rohrbach.

Shifting winds pushed the fire to the southwest overnight Saturday and into Sunday morning. There are about 400 firefighters and support staff working on it.

Fire officials reported Sunday morning that fire activity has moderated, allowing crews to build some containment lines and help protect homes.

Other crews worked overnight Saturday to establish control lines on the southern front progressing toward Tyler, Washington.

Rohrbach said the dense smoke has prevented the use of aircraft, so efforts have been focused on the ground.

Better assessments within the fire perimeter should soon produce a more accurate count of structures damaged.

“Overall, we are cautiously optimistic about containing the fire,” Rohrbach said, “but we certainly are not out of the woods given the incredibly dry fuels.”

The wind was more favorable as it calmed Sunday, and cooler temperatures, higher humidity and some rain are forecast for the next few days, according to Steve Bodnar, incident meteorologist from the National Weather Service.

“Even just drizzly rain like that for eight hours is even better than getting a quarter inch of rain,” Bodnar said.

Spokane County Sheriff John Nowels reminded residents the evacuation zones remain in place.

“We will let you know as soon as possible when it is safe to return to your home,” Nowels said.

While patches of earth still smoke and some hotspots still flicker around the town of Medical Lake, Mayor Terri Cooper warns residents not to return home until authorities have announced it’s safe to do so.

“People have come in and seen their homes in an area where they have no water, they have no power and they have hotspots in their neighborhoods and they want to be in their homes,” Cooper said. “But once they’re there, they have no services.”

“Just please be patient,” Cooper said. “Patience is what we need right now. In a couple more days we’re going to have a lot more accurate information.”

Avista Corp. is repairing downed power lines and replacing power poles. More than 530 homes and businesses in the area remained without power Sunday night.

A 20-mile section of Interstate 90 remains closed. Flanking the road, charred Ponderosa stumps still smolder and flames flicker on the blackened landscape. Mangled pieces of guardrail spill onto the highway and fraying power lines sag, nearly touching the ground below. Not a car is in sight. Officials said they don’t have an estimate on when the interstate will open, as they are focusing resources to contain the fire.

Fire officials with the Northeast Washington Interagency fire team reported Sunday morning that crews were removing trees that had fallen onto the highway or had become weakened by the fire.

The closure, and detours, prompted long lines of traffic on Sunday afternoon. The Washington Department of Transportation reported “significant backups” on U.S. Highway 2 headed west. Motorists may also use U.S. Highway 195 south to State Route 23 if trying to drive west.

On Sunday morning, convoys of fire vehicles left Cheney Middle School in different directions after a briefing.

Meanwhile, exhausted night crews returning from the front lines rinsed off in a shower trailer and got a bite to eat from a catering truck.

Crews had tents pitched across the school fields, which served as the fire’s command center.

The parking lot was full of fire rigs from across Washington and Oregon.

Miles away in Spokane, an evacuation center operated by the Red Cross remains open at Spokane Falls Community College.

Medical Lake resident Mark Schumacher decided to stay put during the fires. On Sunday afternoon, he leaned on his shovel and dumped water on another hotspot in the burned out lot across from his home.

“I stayed against rules and regulations,” Schumacher said. “I got on my roof and I got my garden hose and I saved both of them,” he said, referring to his neighbor’s blue house with a fence warped from the heat on South Hallett Street.

Schumacher is a retired Air Force civil engineer who has lived in the neighborhood since 2004.

He saw the fire sweep in across the street from his home Friday night, burning so hot trees just exploded into flames.

The house across the road seemed to ignite from underneath as his neighbors watched from their driveway.

“I kept hearing explosions,” Schumacher said of propane tanks and other materials.

“Trees, they exploded and flamed up like a Roman candle immediately,” he said.

Ever since the flames died down, he has been watching for hotspots and digging out roots that are burning underground.

He added that lots of wildlife has been coming through the neighborhood, along with an Appaloosa horse.

“I’ve been here just making sure everything is cool — not hot,” he said.

Razed houses polka dot neighborhoods where fires roared through. One residence appears totally normal, if a little singed, while all that stands at the address next door is a blackened concrete foundation, a melted car in the driveway and appliances standing erect among the char.

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Hilary Franz, Washington State Commissioner of Public Lands, said this is one of the most devastating fires she has ever seen and rivals the ruins of the 2020 Malden fire.

When fires rage through neighborhoods, Franz noted it’s common for some houses to ignite while others remain untouched. It has to do with a lot of factors, she said, such as landscaping, siding and roofing material or weather conditions.

During an assessment of the neighborhoods, small groups of deer with ashy hides can be seen wandering the neighborhood, meandering freely over melted plastic fences and into yards. Someone dumped a bag of cat food onto the sidewalk, next to a bowl of water collecting large pieces of ash on its surface.

Medical Lake resident Crystal Haynes’ house didn’t burn, though her shed smolders in her backyard. Neighboring homes were leveled.

“You can see right behind us, the house where the kids used to come out and play, it’s gone,” Haynes said. “It’s a shock to see.”

Haynes and her husband were home when they first got the alert to start packing. She piled clothes and supplies for their two dogs into laundry baskets.

“He started taking pictures off the wall. That’s when it started to become really real for me,” Haynes said.

The two fled to Haynes’ in-laws’ house just outside Medical Lake but have returned to their home twice to see the state of it and retrieve forgotten essentials.

Gov. Jay Inslee visited Spokane County Sunday to meet with officials and residents affected by the Gray and Oregon Road fires.

At Lakeland Village, a state-run residential health care facility for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities south of Medical Lake, staff briefed Inslee on the events that unfolded Friday evening as the fire approached.

Staff, assisted by the military, evacuated 147 residents to Eastern State Hospital a short distance to the north. The fire burned right up to the edge of the Lakeland campus. They returned by 9:30 p.m. on Friday night when the fire marshal confirmed it was safe. Two residents are being treated for respiratory symptoms caused by the smoke.

Alan Nowack, Lakeland’s safety officer, suffered a heart attack from smoke inhalation while he monitored the approaching fire during the evacuation. He is now in stable condition.

Inslee announced Nowack will be the honorary “Washingtonian of the Day” on Monday in recognition of his service.

Lakeland residents remain sheltered at the facility, which is running on emergency power and satellite internet for basic operations.

“To keep an institution going through an emergency like this is amazing,” Inslee said, thanking the staff.

The governor also met with evacuees and volunteers at the Red Cross centers at Spokane Falls Community College and Riverside High School. Inslee, who had just returned from attending a climate conference with former Vice President Al Gore in South Korea, stressed the need to continue investing in firefighting resources as well as clean energy.

“There’s a beast at our door and that’s the beast of climate change,” he said.

Elk fire

The wildfire burning near Elk, called the Oregon Road fire, remains 0% contained and had burned 9,278 acres of forest and cropland along with dozens of homes as of Sunday afternoon.

A large area east of Elk remains under a Level 3 evacuation, which means people should leave immediately.

An evacuation center at Riverside High School remains open for people to take shelter and accept supplies.

Firefighters spent Sunday protecting homes and buildings, and securing containment lines. Bulldozers and hand crews are making lines along the east and south side of the fire.

Federal aid was approved to fight the Elk and Medical Lake fires on Friday, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Winona fire

The wildfire burning in Whitman County west of Colfax near the tiny town of Winona was 40% contained as of Sunday

It had burned 2,525 acres of grass and brush and continues to threaten cropland, pastures and some homes and outbuildings. When the fire ignited on Friday afternoon it destroyed a home, damaged another and burned several outbuildings during evacuations. No one was hurt.

The cause of the fire remains under investigation. There are about 120 firefighters working to extinguish it.