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Sunday, August 01, 2004 - Page updated at 06:14 P.M.
Wildfires in Kittitas County deliberately set
By Jessica Blanchard
He and nearly 100 others were evacuated from their homes Friday afternoon as firefighters struggled to contain a fire believed to be the work of a serial arsonist. Fueled by dry brush and strong winds, the fire raced through the Sunlight Waters community in Morrison Canyon, destroying two homes and a shed and consuming nearly 600 acres.
"If they catch him, they should just turn him over to me," Mosebar said of the suspected arsonist. "It'd save (the county) the cost of a trial."
Citing an ongoing investigation, authorities wouldn't say how the fire started but said the method resembled that of 10 other wildfires in the county in the past two months. Authorities are also investigating whether the fires might be linked to a half-dozen unsolved arsons from last summer.
Mosebar knew his mobile home wasn't one of the structures destroyed yesterday morning, but fire authorities, citing the ongoing danger, barred residents from returning to their homes until today at the earliest.
With his family safe and his two horses temporarily sheltered at a farm in neighboring Thorp, Mosebar and his wife, Wanda, could do nothing but wait. But the couple couldn't bring themselves to join the crowd of anxious evacuees gathered at a local school.
Instead, they parked their camper at a nearby fruit stand and kept an eye on the smoldering hillside.
"I'm gonna wait it out and hope to heck it don't flare up again," Mosebar said.
Firefighters are worried that the nearly 3-mile-long fire will do just that. By yesterday evening, the county had declared an emergency and nearly 400 firefighters from around the state had arrived here to help fight what authorities are calling one of the worst fires in the county in recent memory.
Most of the suspected arson fires shared "specific consistencies," said Kittitas County undersheriff Clayton Myers. They were set in the afternoon, near homes and highway access in areas where there was plenty of dry grass, trees and other fuels.
The sheriff's department, which did not have any suspects as of last night, was offering a $10,000 reward for information.
According to a study by Western Fire Ecology Center in Eugene, Ore., about 25 percent of all wildfires caused by people are the result of arson.
The most recent fire began around noon Friday near Interstate 90 between Cle Elum and Ellensburg and quickly spread, threatening about 200 homes. The rocky, steep terrain made fighting the fire a challenge, and brisk winds propelled embers across the canyon, starting a series of smaller fires.
No injuries had been reported as of last night, but three structures a mobile home, a small cabin and a shed were destroyed. Scraps of metal roofing and concrete foundation blocks were all that was left of the cabin.
Fire crews fought into the night to save homes as flames crept up on doorsteps.
Amber Schlichting, 20, and her family were among the unfortunate ones. She sobbed upon learning their mobile home of two months had burned, as boyfriend Alex Hoover cried quietly, his head on her shoulder. Their 20-month-old daughter, Ashley, sat on Hoover's lap.
"I still just can't believe it. They tell me everything's gone. Nothing's left," Schlichting told the Associated Press. "It doesn't even feel like reality. It's our first home."
It was "pure luck" which homes burned and which didn't, said Sgt. Fred Slyfield, an emergency management specialist with the Kittitas County Sheriff's Office.
Some residents were given only minutes to gather belongings and pets before they were evacuated Friday afternoon. Many sought shelter at Thorp High School, where the Red Cross set up cots and provided sandwiches.
Yesterday, one by one, residents were escorted back to their homes to retrieve abandoned pets and essential items such as medicines. One woman was allowed to get her wedding dress, Slyfield said.
They crowded onto the bleachers in the high school's hot, stuffy gym yesterday afternoon for a briefing from fire officials. Some had hoped to return to their homes last night. But with the National Weather Service predicting more winds and gusts up to 30 miles an hour, it's not safe for residents to return, officials said.
"It's really hard to tell" when firefighters will have the fire contained, Myers said. Firefighters will meet with the evacuees again this morning to give them an update, he said.
Three helicopters continued to dump water on hot spots last night. "That's probably what helped save this," Slyfield said of the homes. "If we hadn't had the helicopters in here, we probably would have had a lot more structures burn."
The fire came close to Frank Van Geystel's home but didn't destroy it, he said, and he and his wife and about 20 other evacuees were able to stay at a friend's home nearby.
While acknowledging that it had been a stressful couple of days, Van Geystel tried to remain positive. "This really brings the community together," he said.
Meanwhile, about 900 firefighters continued working on blazes in other parts of Central Washington. The Pot Peak-Sisi Ridge complex of four fires west of Lake Chelan had burned more than 40 square miles and was half-contained yesterday afternoon. It had burned two recreational buildings and was threatening the community of Stehekin, though fire officials said there was no imminent danger.
The lightning-caused Rattlesnake Peak fire 40 miles west of Yakima had scorched about 373 acres, but was burning in heavy fuel in an area that had not burned for 60 years.
Material from the Associated Press was included in this report. Jessica Blanchard: 206-464-3896 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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