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Wildfires rage across Eastern Washington, residents evacuated as flames spread

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Photo courtesy of Spokane County Fire District 10
Photo courtesy of Spokane County Fire District 10

On Friday, August 18, flames erupted just outside the rural Eastern Washington town of Medical Lake. Dubbed the "Gray Fire," the conflagration engulfed dry pine trees, homes, and other buildings as it grew. Responders attempted to assess the damage, and nearby towns evacuated. By the end of the day, parts of I-90 were closed as the flames neared the road.

The cause is still under investigation, though the dry heatwave that settled over the entire Pacific Northwest the previous week didn't help. For several days, temperatures in Eastern Washington rose above 100 degrees.

Andrea Callaghan, an attorney in Spokane, was flying back to the city on Friday night. She could see the destructive orange glow of the enormous wildfire from her plane window. At that point, it had spread to 10,000 acres.

"Watching the Medical Lake community burn while flying over it was a very somber experience," she said. "It looked apocalyptic, and my heart ached for the families. I was sitting next to a dear friend whose family was evacuating while we flew over them, totally unable to help."

The path of the fire looked like a maze, burning entire houses to the ground in one neighborhood, while just a block away, the flames didn't even touch others. One man watched his home burn down through Ring doorbell footage as he evacuated residents of Lakeland Village, a state group facility for the developmentally impaired. Staff there pushed residents in wheelchairs a mile to Eastern State Hospital as the fire encroached on the supportive living facility.

As of Tuesday, August 22, the Gray Fire was 25% contained. It is estimated it has burned over 10,000 acres, destroyed at least 80 buildings, and claimed one life. Some level 3 evacuation orders have been lifted, and residents of nearby towns, such as Cheney, are returning home. The Red Cross has set up a shelter at the Spokane Falls Community College for evacuated residents.

The Spokane County Fairgrounds also set up a shelter for people to bring their large animals. Because the areas hit by the fires are rural, the effect on livestock has been devastating. Still, the Spokane community has united to try and rescue as many people and animals as possible.

"Multiple people were banding together with horse trailers, ready to help move livestock," Spokane resident Rachelle Anderson reflected. "The areas hit were largely rural — grazing fields and newly harvested wheat fields." Evacuees had also reported seeing many animals running loose, mostly dogs and horses.

The Oregon Road Fire
Now that the Gray Fire is a quarter of the way to being contained, I-90 is back open in both directions, though crews are still working to remove dangerous trees at risk of falling along the interstate. Firefighters advise anyone planning to drive on I-90 between Four Lakes and Tyler using extreme caution, as they are still hard at work in the area. State Route 902 is still closed.

While the containment of the Gray Fire is good news for Eastern Washington residents, they aren't out of the woods yet. The Oregon Road Fire started on Friday as just a two-acre brush fire but, due to high winds, quickly spread. The blaze is currently over 11,036 acres and 0% contained. Residents of Elk and Chattaroy, WA, and some in Pend Oreille County have all been evacuated, with many taking shelter in Newport, WA. The Red Cross set up another shelter at Riverside High School.

The Newport rodeo grounds are taking large animals. The Spokane Livestock Emergency Evacuation Team rushed in to rescue hundreds of animals, including chickens, cows, horses, goats, sheep, and alpacas.

Authorities are also unsure of how the Oregon Road Fire started but report that over a hundred structures have been destroyed, and at least one person has died. On Tuesday, Elk County said a new national team of firefighters, the Pacific Northwest Team 3, has arrived to help. There are currently 630 people actively working to contain the blaze, the largest command post that Eastern Washington has seen.

After five days of attempting to contain the fire with no success, crews switched tactics. Instead of using all hands on deck to keep it from expanding at the edges, they're dividing their teams into twice as many divisions to focus on building stronger lines, which will hopefully help them achieve containment.

The biggest game changer came Tuesday morning, when the region saw some light rain showers in the early hours. With cooling temperatures and more rain in the forecast, experts are hoping the change in weather could be the best tactic to finally contain the fire.

Small blazes continued to pop up around Spokane County, with one off Thorpe Road and another in Whitman County. Local fire marshals are begging residents to remain vigilant, as they cannot take on any more blazes.

Experts also advise anyone in a location where the air quality is hazardous to remain indoors as much as possible and wear a mask when outside. Pets should also stay inside when the air quality is poor.

Hundreds of families in Eastern Washington have lost their homes. The Red Cross is requesting donations of clothing, food, pet supplies, and toiletries. Visit redcross.org, call 1-800-RED-CROSS (800-733-2767), or text the word REDCROSS to 90999 to make a $10 donation.