Thousands under evacuation orders and some homes burn as wildfires race through Washington state
Aug 18, 2023, 5:19 PM | Updated: 8:18 pm
SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) — Fast-moving wildfires raced through Washington state on Friday, burning some homes and prompting evacuation orders for thousands of people in small rural communities.
One of the largest blazes, the so-called Gray Fire near Spokane in eastern Washington, began around noon and a few hours later had surged through 4.7 square miles (12 square kilometers) of grass, timber and wheat, pushed by 35-mph (56-kph) winds, according to the Washington State Department of Natural Resources.
Level 3, or “Go Now,” evacuations were issued for Medical Lake, a community of about 4,800 people and some homes and other buildings had burned, authorities said, although it wasn’t clear how many.
National Guard troops were called in to help evacuate patients and staff from Eastern State Hospital, a 367-bed psychiatric facility in Medical Lake.
Spokane County Sheriff John Nowels said deputies were “running from house to house” urging people to leave their homes, NBC News reported.
“We’ve had to rescue people by boat. We’ve had to rescue people by helicopter,” Nowels said. “If you’re in an evacuation area, leave. We have some folks who refused to leave. Fire then overtakes where they’re at and they need to be rescued.”
Evacuation orders also were issued for nearby Four Lakes, which has about 500 residents and a Level 2 evacuation alert, urging people to “Get Set” to evacuate, was issued Friday night for the city of Cheney, which has more than 13,000 residents. The alert included staff and students at Eastern Washington University, which is located in Cheney.
A second Spokane County blaze dubbed the Oregon Road Fire also prompted evacuations, the Department of Natural Resources said.
That fire broke out near Elk at around 4 p.m. and in only a few hours grew to some 3 square miles (8 square kilometers).
The region was scorched by triple-digit temperatures last week, leaving grasslands and wheat fields ready to burn, said Joe Smillie, spokesperson for the Department of Natural Resources.
“We haven’t had any real rain all summer, basically,” he said, and then a cooler weather front moved in Thursday, bringing with it gusty winds.
The National Weather Service had warned of “critical fire conditions,” citing dry conditions and the potential for gusty winds that could cause new or existing fires to spread rapidly.
Authorities were calling in more aircraft and firefighters to battle the Gray Fire, which closed down Interstate 90.
South of Spokane, the Winona Fire in Whitman County had burned at least 7.8 square miles (20.2 square kilometers) of grass and brush and prompted evacuations orders for Winona, a tiny hamlet of about 50 residents.
“Cropland, range land, primary structure and secondary structures are threatened,” the Department of Natural Resources said on social media.
The fires were among 36 blazes that erupted around the state in the past two days, although most were small and quickly contained, Smillie said.
There wasn’t any immediate word on what sparked the blazes.