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Originally published August 8, 2005 at 12:00 AM | Page modified August 8, 2005 at 8:46 PM

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Fire burns 35,000 acres, 100-plus cabins in southeast Washington

Firefighters were expecting cooler, wetter weather in the next few days as they attempt to contain the volatile fire's advance.

POMEROY — Firefighters today began to assess the damage from a 35,000-acre wildfire that whipped through canyons, wheat fields and forestland in southeastern Washington, destroying more than 100 residences near Pomeroy.

About 600 firefighters were assigned to the School fire, which was believed to have started Friday when a tree landed on a power line, said Clay Barr, director of emergency management for Garfield County.

Fire crews had good lines around three sides of the fire today, but they remained concerned about heavy timber in the Umatilla National Forest to the south. However, there are few homes located in that timber country, Barr said.

More than 100 residences were believed to have burned in the blaze, most in the forest, though firefighters were still working to assess damage in areas still smoldering today. About 20 of those residences were probably full-time homes, with the rest being hunting cabins, recreational homes and pads for recreational vehicles, Barr said.

"Within the forest, it was a true firestorm, spotting a quarter-mile ahead of the fire," Barr said. "There was nothing to be done with this kind of fire."

Bill Ruchert and other relatives were helping his nephew build a log cabin in the woods Saturday when the fire approached, forcing them to evacuate.

"By 10 o'clock the column had gotten pretty big and by 4 o'clock that afternoon it was getting to the point we were concerned because ash and debris from the fire had been falling on us all day, although none of it was hot. It was falling out of the sky," Ruchert said.

The family evacuated and later learned the modular home they had been living in while the cabin was being built was destroyed, in addition to a brother's cabin a few hundred yards away.

The terrain in the fertile Palouse region of Eastern Washington is unusual, with grass and farm fields at lower elevations, timber in gullies and drainages and wheat fields on the top of many hills, said Don Ferguson, spokesman for the Northwest Fire Coordination Center.

The fire covered about 150 acres Saturday morning, but then blew up, forcing rapid evacuations. Farmers plowed up broad swaths of earth through fields of wheat and other crops, trying to create fire breaks and save this year's harvest.

The cause remained under investigation, though fire officials believed it was not caused by lightning.

One firefighter was injured when a vehicle overturned Monday. The firefighter was taken to a hospital in Lewiston, Idaho, with non-life threatening injuries, Barr said.

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In north-central Washington, the Burnt Bread fire was estimated at 1,300 acres this afternoon and was 25 percent contained. The fire, about 21 miles southeast of Tonasket, started Saturday and destroyed one barn. Its cause was under investigation, said fire spokeswoman Cindy Reichelt.

About 120 firefighters were assigned to the blaze. Crews were working hard to control the north flank of the fire to prevent it from burning into the Okanogan National Forest, where dense stands of beetle-killed timber would make firefighting difficult, Reichelt said.

Further south, the Dirtyface fire near Lake Wenatchee, about 18 miles northwest of Leavenworth, was 60 percent contained today at about 1,100 acres. No homes were evacuated. More than 675 firefighters were assigned to the blaze.

The Lick Creek fire near Cle Elum had charred about 670 acres and was considered 20 percent contained today. Fire crews hoped to have the blaze 40 percent contained by the end of the day today, said fire spokesman Dale Warriner. The fire, which started Thursday, was believed to have been caused by logging equipment that caught fire, Warriner said. Nearly 500 firefighters were assigned to that blaze. No structures had burned, and no injuries were reported.

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