2nd person found dead in eastern Washington wildfires, hundreds of structures burned

Aug 21, 2023, 4:42 PM | Updated: 6:18 pm

A second person has died in wildfires in eastern Washington state that ignited on Friday, burning hundreds of structures and closing a section of a major interstate for days, fire officials said.

A body was found in the area burned by the Oregon fire north of Spokane on Sunday afternoon, fire officials told The Associated Press on Monday.

Another person died in connection with the Gray fire that started Friday west of Spokane, authorities said over the weekend.

Gov. Jay Inslee visited the burned areas Sunday and declared a statewide emergency. Those fires have destroyed at least 265 structures and, together with others, have burned more than 53 square miles (137 square kilometers) combined around the state this year.

Inslee said Monday he had talked with President Joe Biden and Federal Emergency Management Administrator Deanne Criswell about securing federal dollars to help with firefighting efforts.

“I appreciated President Biden’s call this morning to share his concern for the devastating Spokane County wildfires and what can be done to secure federal aid,” Inslee said Monday on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Inslee said Criswell told him the agency would work with Washington to assess damages as quickly as possible to see what federal aid the state may qualify for.

Criswell spoke with reporters aboard Air Force One on Monday, as Biden flew to tour wildfire damage in Hawaii. Criswell said FEMA had emergency response teams embedded with Washington state emergency response authorities “and they’re ready to support any resource request as needed.”

The Gray fire started near Medical Lake in Spokane County around noon Friday and had burned about 15.6 square miles (40 square kilometers) as of Monday.

At least 185 structures have been destroyed or damaged with a higher number expected once crews are able to make an accurate assessment, according to Isabelle Hoygaard, public information officer with the Gray fire incident management team.

“A good majority” of the homes and other structures burned were in the small city of Medical Lake and nearby Silver Lake, Hoygaard said. Medical Lake Mayor Terri Cooper said Monday that 5,000 residents had been displaced because of the fire, KREM-TV reported.

Fire crews were making progress on the Gray fire Monday, Hoygaard said, and a section of Interstate 90 that had closed because of the flames and burned trees falling into the roadway reopened on Monday afternoon. Some of the mandatory evacuations abated on Monday, according to Spokane County Emergency Management.

The Oregon fire began Friday afternoon northeast of Elk, Washington. It had consumed about 15.8 square miles (40.9 square kilometers) of forest and cropland as of Monday, according to fire officials. More than 80 structures have burned in that blaze and about 150 remain at risk, according to Guy Gifford, public information officer for the Oregon fire.

Mandatory evacuations have been in effect around both fires with officials also noting that if residents feel threatened by fire, they should evacuate immediately.

“There may be no formal notice that you need to evacuate,” fire managers said on the fire incident information system website.

The cause of both fires is under investigation. Both started in dry, windy conditions that had prompted warnings of critical fire danger in the region.

Air quality around Spokane was the worst in the country on Sunday with poor air quality continuing on Monday, according to the National Weather Service in Spokane. Areas of western Washington that had experienced smoky conditions on Sunday started to see some improvement on Monday.


Associated Press writer Will Weissert contributed to this report from Washington, D.C.

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2nd person found dead in eastern Washington wildfires, hundreds of structures burned