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Two wild fires threaten towns


A fire engine sits between a burning hillside above west Coulee Dam and the Columbia River Inn below Sunday night. Firefighters were back burning the hillside to keep it from catching fire in an uncontrolled way if the wind shifted. - Scott Hunter photo

Two wildfires burned separately Sunday afternoon and threatened Elmer City, Coulee Dam and Grand Coulee, while residents watched as flames lit up the hillsides on both sides of the Columbia River.

Local fire fighting agencies responded quickly during "red flag" conditions for which the National Weather Service had issued warnings, due to low humidity and high winds.

Highways 174 and 155 were both closed sporadically as the fires came close over the next two days, and residents were warned they should be vigilant and thinking about how to evacuate if it came to that.

"The Fire Chiefs are asking the public to remain very vigilant and careful during their outside activities," said Grand Coulee Volunteer Fire Chief Rick Paris, speaking on behalf of all local departments Tuesday. "The weather has cooled down, but as it was seen, we still can have very extreme fire behavior."

The Elmer City Fire started late Sunday afternoon just north of Elmer City, spreading quickly uphill in stiff winds. Across the river about an hour and a half later, the 230 Switch Yard Fire was reported about 6 p.m., said Chris Hutsell, incident commander on the latter fire.

People who had gathered at the Crown Point overlook to watch the drama across the river near Elmer City and on the Colville Reservation suddenly found themselves right next to a new threat.

By 7:15, state resources were mobilized at the request of Douglas County Fire District 3 Chief Dale Rinker, and Grant County Fire District 14 Chief Ryan Fish.

An early theory that the 230 Fire had started from the Elmer City Fire miles away was "pure speculation" and unlikely because of wind directions at the time, Hutsell said Tuesday.

The causes of both fires are currently under investigation, said both Hutsell and Brandon Sutton, incident commander on the Elmer City Fire.

"Anyone with specific information on how any of the fires may have started, please contact any of the fire or police departments with the information," Paris said.

The 230 Switch Yard Fire, named for the electrical distribution facility in its midst, burned 230 acres, Hutsell said.

That was essentially the same size it was when firefighters from 12 agencies around the state arrived to relieve local firefighters, who had done "a really good job" getting the fire that threatened both Grand Coulee and Coulee Dam under control.

The fire was essentially out on Tuesday, and the Type 3 incident management team, five strike teams and two helicopters planned to be gone by Wednesday.

The Mount Tolman Fire Center, in charge of the Elmer City Fire also had state resource help, with about 200 firefighters stationed at the Nespelem Community Center with five strike teams.

The Elmer City Fire was about 60 percent contained Tuesday evening, Sutton said, and had burned some 5,800 acres and one outbuilding.

Level 1 evacuation warnings for Elmer City and east Coulee Dam were lifted Tuesday.

Lake Roosevelt Schools resumed Tuesday after cancelling school on Monday with no phone or internet service. Grant County PUD's fiber optic cables had been damaged in the 230 fire, cutting internet service for the school and affecting service for the Colville Tribes and Nespelem School.

Larry Hernandez, of Country Cable in Coulee Dam, said shortly after 3 a.m. Tuesday that service was restored.

"The Grand Coulee Dam area fire chiefs would like to thank all the residents and visitors and businesses for their patience and cooperation over the past few days during the 230 Switch Yard Fire and the Elmer City Fire," Paris said.

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