A fire fueled by strong winds, high temperatures and parched vegetation torched about 3,200 acres, as well as a fire engine and two structures, within hours of breaking out Wednesday near Williams Lake in southern Spokane County.
Spokane County Fire District 3 Chief Cody Rohrbach said 39 residences were under Level 3 evacuations, meaning people should leave now, and about 100 structures were immediately threatened.
“If containment efforts are not successful, that number will continue to grow,” Rohrbach said.
He was unsure if the two structures that burned were homes. The fire is zero to 10% contained, Rohrbach said.
The fire started around 2:30 p.m. near the 15000 block of Williams Lake Road, according to a Facebook post by Spokane County Fire District 3. Responders arrived to find a wildfire spreading quickly to the north and northeast, Rohrbach said. The National Weather Service issued a red flag warning for the area Wednesday, meaning hot, dry and windy conditions posed a high fire risk.
Rohrbach said wind, rocky terrain and tall grass have made suppressing the fire extremely challenging.
“In 28 years of fighting fire, I’ve never seen them like this, and so it’s really proved to be challenging for firefighters on the ground,” Rohrbach said of the grass.
The plume from the fire was easily visible from downtown Spokane Wednesday afternoon.
Level 3 evacuations were put in place from 15111 to 14411 Williams Lake Road, the post said. Level 3 evacuations are also in place for West Martin Road across Long Road to South Cheney Plaza Road, according to an updated post. More evacuations are possible as the fire spreads.
The Fire District said via Facebook that the fire jumped Rock Lake Road and advised residents east of Rock Lake Road to evacuate immediately as of 6 p.m.
About 200 firefighters and almost a dozen aircraft from multiple agencies were on scene Wednesday to fight the fire, Rohrbach said. Additional resources from across the state were en route.
All firefighters were able to escape uninjured from the fire engine that the fire destroyed. Rohrbach did not specify the agency that lost the engine. Firefighter shortages have already made matters difficult, Rohrbach said.
“We’re thankful they’re all out,” he said.
The cause of the fire is under investigation.
Cheney High School, 460 N. Sixth St., is open for evacuees, according to Spokane County Fire District 3’s Facebook page. The American Red Cross is setting up the shelter in conjunction with the county Department of Emergency Management.
A group of concerned residents and their vehicles could be seen at Cheney Plaza and Rock Lake roads, where a Spokane County Sheriff’s Office deputy used his patrol car to block and redirect traffic away from the blaze. Smoke filled the area, limiting visibility and irritating eyes.
Some of the people, like Jake Barta, were worried about the welfare of cattle in the nearby pastures.
Barta said his 140-plus cattle were safe, but he was concerned about a neighbor’s cows. He said his neighbor’s cattle were bunched up in a meadow and he hoped they would stay put.
“His are in harm’s way in a bad way,” Barta said.
Cheney Rodeo grounds is open for large animal evacuations, the fire district’s Facebook page said. They do not have food on the grounds, but they have pens and water.
Rohrbach noted the abundant livestock in the area and said firefighters are trying to move them out. But their priority is making sure residents are safe.
Visitors and staff members at Bunker’s Resort on Williams Lake were preparing to evacuate if necessary, said Halie Champlin, an employee of the resort. She said they could see large clouds of smoke, and a handful of firefighting aircrafts scooping water out of Williams Lake and Badger Lake to fight the blaze.
About half of the fire, which was burning grass and ponderosa pine, was burning north of Williams Lake Road, and the other half was south of the road, Rohrbach said.
He said winds continued to push the fire rapidly to the north and northeast.
Another wildfire broke out Wednesday evening around 50 miles from Williams Lake in Adams County that closed state Route 21 because of low visibility from the smoke. The fire was reportedly burning in the median of state Route 395 near milepost 82, 13 miles south of Ritzville, according to a news release from the Washington State Patrol.
The Lind Fire Department responded to the scene and Route 395 remained open as of Wednesday evening.