Wildfire in Washington state near Columbia River Gorge grows slowly, still at 5% containment

Jul 6, 2023, 3:02 PM

UNDERWOOD, Wash. (AP) — Hundreds of firefighters have converged in southwest Washington along the Columbia River Gorge to fight the Tunnel 5 Fire, which ignited and grew rapidly on Sunday and remains at 5% containment.

The number of people fighting the blaze has jumped from more than 160 on Monday to more than 460 people, state Department of Natural Resources officials said late Wednesday. The fire burning in steep terrain is threatening homes, vineyards and power lines across the river from Hood River, Oregon, and about 2 miles (3,2 kilometers) from White Salmon, Washington.

On Monday, officials said the fire had burned more than 540 acres (219 hectares). On Thursday, Department of Natural Resources officials said it had grown to 556 acres (225 hectares) and was slowly moving west.

Skamania County Sheriff’s officials have said some structures have been destroyed by fire but haven’t confirmed how many.

Underwood resident Will Richards, 69, told KOIN-TV that he and his family lost their home on Sunday.

Richards said a neighbor called him that day to warn that a fire was racing uphill toward their property, so he quickly returned home with his daughter.

“We came down the driveway and got the dog,” Richards said. “I went into the burning house and the smoke was so thick I couldn’t see. I fumbled around for the car keys and my wife’s purse and drove the cars to the top of the driveway.”

A mandatory evacuation notice was in effect all week for residents living around the fire, but evacuation notices changed somewhat Thursday with evacuation levels reduced for residents on the eastern fire edges and increased on the western edge.

The red flag warning in the area expired Wednesday, but continued breezy conditions are expected to challenge firefighting efforts.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell plan to visit the fire on Friday.

Resources on the fire include 39 engines, 10 crews, five helicopters and four single-engine air tankers that are dropping water on the fire from the Columbia River.

Firefighters are working diligently to protect homes and infrastructure including railroad tracks, Northwest Incident Management Team 12 said on Facebook.

“The railroad passes through the main fire area and work is being done to protect the tracks through the corridor to minimize interruptions,” the post said. “The tracks are also utilized as a hold and improve line for firefighters to be able to get the upper hand.”

Nearly 73 square miles (189 square kilometers) of land burned in 2017 along the Oregon side of the Gorge, which is known for windy conditions, after a teenager tossing fireworks into a canyon ignited a blaze.

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Wildfire in Washington state near Columbia River Gorge grows slowly, still at 5% containment