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Wednesday, August 15, 2012 - Page updated at 10:00 p.m.
Firefighters can't keep ahead of fast-moving Taylor Bridge blaze
By Seattle Times staff
The Taylor Bridge wildfire between Cle Elum and Ellensburg has destroyed more than 60 homes, killed hundreds if not thousands of cows, horses and other livestock and scorched more than 28,000 acres — and firefighters weren't expecting to be near full containment Wednesday morning.
"It's an explosive, dangerous situation. We're doing our best to bring it under control," said Commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Peter Goldmark, who toured the area Tuesday. "We can't get in front of a fire that's driven by 30 mph winds."
He said Washington fire crews, so far, have faced the blaze without regional support because of other fires in the West. "We're kind of on our own," he said. "There's nobody else to turn to."
The fire, spread over about 40 square miles, was reported about 10 percent contained Tuesday night.
About 900 people have been evacuated, and many are working to save their homes by whatever means they have — borrowed bulldozers, water from swimming pools and hand shovels. There have been moments of success, but too often the fight has been lost.
Near Red Sky Orchards east of Cle Elum, an entire neighborhood could be seen from the freeway, going up in flames while helicopters dumped water on the fire.
"I'm watching my house burn down right now," said Haley Lindelof, 16, as she sat on the edge of a pickup, wiping tears from her face.
A junior firefighter for Kittitas County's District 1, Lindelof helped evacuate residents overnight Monday, but found the fire at her family's doorstep Tuesday.
Her mom sat beside her on the back of the truck, parked at the side of the road.
"Right now it's so uncontrollable, there's not much you can do anymore," she said.
More homes, farms and ranches are in the path of the fire, which by Tuesday evening was moving northeast.
Gov. Chris Gregoire declared a state of emergency for Kittitas and Yakima counties, making available additional resources, including Washington National Guard helicopters. Shelters have opened in Cle Elum and Ellensburg, though few people have sought refuge there.
The heat conditions making the fire difficult to fight aren't letting up, either. Temperatures are expected in the mid-80s Wednesday, climbing into the low 90s by Friday.
"Unless Mother Nature helps us out here, we're going to be fighting this awhile," said Joe Seemiller, a Kittitas County Fire and Rescue captain.
A specialty team of experienced firefighters from across the state has been brought in to battle the wildfire, but that battle was waged mostly by air Tuesday, state officials said, because the ever-expanding blaze was moving too fast to fight it on the ground. About 250 were on the ground, which is often steep terrain, Goldmark said. The Department of Corrections has sent 145 inmates from Cedar Creek, Larch and Olympic Corrections Centers to help.
In a perfect world, said Bryan Flint, chief spokesman with the DNR, the best way to fight the fire would be to dig a perimeter around it using bulldozers or shovels. But, he added, that has been impossible because "this fire is moving so fast." Instead, firefighters were trying to slow the blaze by attacking the flanks.
"Right now the priority is life and property, protecting structures and getting air support," Flint said. "This is a pretty significant fire in terms of structures lost, its proximity to two communities, the speed in which it has grown."
Goldmark said firefighters are hopeful winds will die down Wednesday and give them a chance to make progress. So far, he said it's difficult to characterize the containment effort as going well.
"It's hard to say it's going well when we're losing structures," he said. "It's hard to say it's going well when the fire acreage is growing."
No injuries have been reported in the fire, which, so far, has blackened more acreage than all of Washington's 2011 fire season
A state bridge-construction crew working east of Cle Elum is believed to have sparked the fire Monday afternoon, according to Josie Williams, of Eastside Fire & Rescue. Goldmark would not confirm that Tuesday.
More details about the cause weren't immediately available from the Kittitas County Sheriff's Office, which has been investigating the fire's origin, Williams said.
The fire has cut power to about 400 homes near Cle Elum, and some may be without power for up to a week, said Matt Boast of the Kittitas County PUD. A large number of wooden power poles have burned, bringing down lines that, in some cases, stretch across roads, adding to the hazards, Boast said.
The state Department of Ecology says the air quality in the area is unhealthy.
Couple lose most everything
Ed and Maggie Taasevigen stood on black ground Tuesday afternoon, beside their green Ford Escort that was speckled with orange flame retardant.
Their mobile home was gone. So was Ed's leather-working shop and two trucks, all destroyed by the fast-moving fire.
Most everything the Taasevigens owned went up in smoke minutes after the flames forced them off their property Monday evening.
A sheriff's deputy, who brought the news that they had to leave, had helped them load their sled dogs into vehicles.
The firefighting effort already was at their doorstep. At one point Maggie had to duck her head into a car to avoid being doused with flame retardant from a plane overhead.
Power poles still smoked along Highway 97 north of the Taasevigens' home between Thorp and Ellensburg on Tuesday afternoon while the couple looked at what was left. It wasn't much. They were arranging to borrow a freezer to save some meat.
Throughout their neighborhood, the luckiest homeowners still had a home, protected by fire retardant dropped from a plane. The homes stood in circles of orange dirt amid an otherwise charred landscape.
"We had two minutes to get out, said Dawn Bequez, whose blue farmhouse was standing, near the remains of three outbuildings and some vehicles lost when the fire raced through Monday. She and her husband gathered up their two kids and two dogs, let their two horses go, and left two cats behind. All the animals survived, although their orange cat was black, she said.
Bequez and her husband waited across Highway 97 from their home Tuesday to meet the insurance adjuster. While they felt lucky, they watched nervously as smoke billowed just over the nearby ridge line, threatening to turn around for a second pass.
At Smithson and Reecer Creek roads, Lyla Steele called her husband home from his landscaping job Tuesday when flames were visible across the road.
"We're ready to leave if we have to," Steele said. Her kids were in the house. She had been calling the evacuation hotline every half-hour.
It's how many families spent the day Tuesday, waiting with cars packed, horse trailers at the ready, watching the smoke.
"I've lived here my whole life, but never been this close to a fire, " she said.
CWU takes in evacuees
Central Washington University quickly opened up a dorm to fire evacuees. About a dozen showed up Monday night and were fed dinner by a local pizza shop and breakfast Tuesday by the university, said Linda Schachtler, Central's public-affairs director.
The university has made 75 beds available and might open more dorm space to house workers if National Guard members, Red Cross volunteers and other relief groups need the space, she said.
Central also is serving as a sort of public-relations clearinghouse for the relief effort. It was "instantly overwhelmed" with offers to help from alumni and community members, Schachtler said.
The university set up a website, www.cwu.edu/taylorbridgefire, as an information clearinghouse for the relief effort. It's also helping set up a community information meeting with disaster-response officials at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Student Union. A separate community meeting is scheduled for 4 p.m. at the Cle Elum/Roslyn High School Gymnasium.
The community pulled together quickly but still is catching its breath because of the fire's startling spread.
"Twenty-four hours ago, this wasn't even happening," Schachtler said. Driving home from Seattle on Monday night, she witnessed the fire's explosion firsthand.
"I came up the hill past Cle Elum, and it looked like Mount St. Helens blowing up."
President Susan Klein and other members of the board that runs Upper Kittitas County Senior Center opened their facility to evacuees too, but fewer than 10 people have visited, with only five or six staying Monday night.
Klein said it could be that many of the homes that have been destroyed were vacation homes. She also has heard many evacuees slept in their cars in rest areas and on the sides of roads, or with family and friends.
Diana Goodrich, director of outreach at Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest in Cle Elum, said the worst of the flames they saw near the property Monday afternoon were dying out Tuesday. She evacuated with her pet dogs and cats Monday, but her husband stayed with the seven rescued chimpanzees.
"We're definitely aware of the fire danger here, and our protocol is that we've kept a perimeter around the building and a barrier. I think we were confident when we saw three helicopters overhead dumping water on the building, the firefighters did a great job."
Goodrich said they don't have any power and are running on a minimal amount of electricity from a generator. She said they also don't have access to their well water, so the chimps are drinking bottled water and orange juice.
"They're bewildered, at least some of them," she said.
Seattle Times staff reporters Emily Heffter, Connor Radnovich, Craig Welch, Ron Judd, Jennifer Sullivan, Jack Broom and Alexa Vaughn contributed to this report.
Information from The Associated Press is included in this report.
Copyright © The Seattle Times Company
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