Investigators: Cle Elum fire was started by humans

CLE ELUM, Wash. -- A massive wildfire burning near Cle Elum was caused by humans, officials said Wednesday.

But the circumstances around how the fire started remains under investigation, said Mark Morrow with the Department of Natural Resources. Witnesses say the fire began near a construction site at the Taylor Bridge.

Meanwhile, calmer winds gave firefighters hope of containing the blaze that has scorched about 22,600 acres and left dozens of families homeless. Officials initially estimated the acreage at 28,000, but later revised the number after flying over the blaze.

About 900 people were assigned to fight the Taylor Bridge fire in addition to three heavy air tankers, six helicopters and bulldozers.

"We should have a good day," incident commander Rex Reed said early Wednesday.

But more evacuations are expected to be ordered on Wednesday, and officials say the still out-of-control fire could threaten to jump across Interstate 90.

The fire remains about 25 percent contained. At least 400 homes with an estimated 900 people have been evacuated.

Among those evacuated was Tim Hansen, who wasn't optimistic after hearing from a neighbor.

"She saw the whole mountain explode into fire," he said. "It's not easy."

The blaze also left a number of animals displaced. The Ellensburg Animal Hospital was caring for some 60 pets whose families are staying in shelters where animals are not permitted. The hospital is also caring for found dogs, some with minor burns.

Swirling wind vexed firefighters for much of Tuesday.

Kittitas County Undersheriff Clayton Myers called the scene "chaotic."

"It was one of those things you never felt like you were in control, because things kept changing with the wind," Myers said.

Brad Rorem and his two sons saw the fire under a bridge construction site where it started, just down the hill from their cabin near Cle Elum. They fled when it ran in their direction.

"It just shot up so fast," he said, adding later: "We feel really fortunate to have gotten off the mountain in time."

Hours later and several miles to the east, Miriam Greenman left her home with her 6-year-old son, Nathaniel, a handful of clothes and some of his favorite toys to comfort him. Their fish stayed behind.

"I feel bad about the fish, but I figured he was in water and he'd have to tough it out," she said.

By Tuesday evening, their homes had survived the blaze, but many neighbors weren't so lucky. About 70 homes and hundreds of outbuildings had burned, state and local officials said.

Many residents displaced by the fire met Wednesday evening at Central Washington University for meal put together by local ranchers.

Ed, Maggie and Otto Tassevigen were grateful for the food, but couldn't help but think about what a dark situation they're living through.

"We left with the clothes on our back. We have no toothbrushes. We had no soap. No shampoo," Ed Tassevigen said.

The family has been homeless since Monday afternoon

"We sat and watched our place go up not able to do anything," Ed said.

No injuries have been reported, but the fire danger is extreme due to wind, heat and dry conditions.

Desperate neighbors tried to cut out containment lines with hand tools to help protect property threatened by the fast-moving fire, while others loaded up horse trailers to help evacuate livestock to the county fairgrounds.

Firefighters on Wednesday focused on preventing the fire from threatening a housing development near Cle Elum and moving into a stand of timber.

Chane Roghair, 39, worked to dampen hot spots around his 1,300-acre ranch of beef cattle and quarter horses.

Roghair had tanker trucks around his two hay barns to keep them from going up in flames when the fire passed through Monday, and he spent the night keeping watch and dousing spot fires.

No buildings or livestock were lost - his 30 goats hustled down the hill toward the house when the ridge caught fire - but the fire destroyed the original homestead that had been empty for years.

Gov. Chris Gregoire declared a state of emergency for Kittitas and Yakima counties in response to the blaze.

Also, air support from the Washington National Guard has been called in.

The state Transportation Department said a 14-mile section of U.S. Highway 97 was closed because of the fire.

Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark briefly traveled into the burned area where the fire started. In the distance, black smoke rose from a burning home in a subdivision across the river.

The unusual amount of light fuels created by the cool, damp spring coupled with high temperatures and windy conditions now make for fires so destructive they are impossible to hold or suppress, Goldmark said.