September 12, 2012 | LXXII, No. 24

Multiple wildfires stretch firefighters thin

Six fires broke out in the area Saturday night following an electrical storm that swept the state, igniting about 100 blazes and stretching firefighters thin across the region.

Fire descends the hills into Coulee Dam at 1:45 a.m. Monday as firefighters set a back burn line, visible at lower left, that stopped its progress south of town hall. — Dennis King photo

Two of the local fires threatened local residences in Grand Coulee, Coulee Dam and in Douglas County, driven and aimed by high winds.

A third burned the Columbia River Breaks north of Leahy Junction on SR 174 and jumped the river near the Tim Brothers Ranch, and two more caught near Keller.

The Barker Canyon Complex fires had burned thousands of acres by Tuesday in two separate fires that kept local crews too busy to attend the Leahy fire, which threatened no homes.

By Sunday afternoon, Douglas County Fire District 3 Chief Dale Rinker felt compelled to leave a pleading phone message for those in charge of state resources, calling for help. It didn’t arrive officially until Tuesday, and by Tuesday night the combined Barker Canyon Complex had burned 78,165 acres, three homes and eight outbuildings.

In the meantime, local firefighters, joined by districts from Concunully to Moses Lake, plus Bureau of Reclamation and Bureau of Land Management resources, fought to keep a lid on the fire that swept from the shores of Banks Lake five miles southwest of Grand Coulee to jump SR 174 and descend on Grand Coulee and Coulee Dam by Sunday night.

Residences in Douglas County were evacuated Sunday afternoon after the fire topped the wall of the Grand Coulee and raced toward Smith Lake Road. Its sister fire, which started near the 500kV switchyard above Grand Coulee Dam, drew fire crews to protect that structure, responsible for dispatching electric power across the region.

The switchyard was not harmed, but thick smoke sent some of its huge safety switches to ground fault, sending up arcs and loud noises seen and heard miles away.

Sunday night, residents in north Grand Coulee above the feeder canal were ordered to evacuate. West Coulee Dam residents were warned to be ready to go quickly. Hillsides glowed red and orange as embers cascaded down toward houses.

Tuesday night, SR 174 was still closed from Grand Coulee to Leahy junction, and a be-ready Level 2 Evacuation was in effect from the highway to the river. The towns were no longer under threat.

Nespelem, far away from the flames, found itself without power Monday afternoon as wooden power poles burned in the fire.

The Barker Canyon Complex was 20 percent contained Tuesday night, at a cost of about $650,000 and counting, and engaging 186 personnel, 27 fire engines, eight bulldozers, 10 water tender trucks.

The Manila Creek Complex on the Colville Indian Reservation has burned 1,662 acres and is considered 60 percent contained.

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