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Slow progress against wildfires; thieves target evacuated homes

CHELAN, Wash. - As tourists flee, homes burn and thousands of residents evacuate around Lake Chelan, firefighters made slow progress in their exhausting battle against an array of fires raging around Chelan County and elsewhere in Washington state.

At the same time, law enforcement personnel battled a new threat - burglars targeting hundreds of homes in neighborhoods evacuated due to the fire danger.

Chelan County Sheriff Brian Burnett canceled all days off for deputies to increase patrols in the affected neighborhoods. In addition, state troopers and Wenatchee police officers were brought in to assist.

The Chelan fires - considered the worst of dozens burning across central and eastern Washington state - have already scorched more than 155 square miles. At least three dozen homes have been destroyed - and possibly twice that many. Twenty-one other structures also have burned down.

Four hundred homes at the south end of the lake and in the north canyons remain in the path of the spreading flames and some 2,700 residents have been evacuated there. Thousands more are under orders to leave at a moment's notice.

The wildfires have also destroyed businesses, including fruit-packing plants and a building supply outlet, and frightened away visitors at the height of Lake Chelan's tourist season as the flames continue to spread.

Meanwhile, air tankers established lines to keep the flames from reaching downtown Chelan as thick smoke reached unhealthy levels over the region, fire officials said.

There was one bright spot in the news, however. Crews battling the Chelan Complex fires say they have reached 30 percent containment - up from zero percent on Monday. No more homes were destroyed overnight and power was restored to most homes.

Officials say they are hoping to gain even more containment Tuesday in preparation for an onslaught of scorching temperatures and gusty winds that are expected to invade the area on Wednesday.

About 1,000 civilian firefighters are battling the flames around Chelan, along with scores of National Guard troops who were mobilized earlier.

The Chelan fires were just some of the many destructive blazes burning throughout the Northwest. In northern Idaho, more than 40 homes were lost near the town of Kamiah, and in Oregon a lightning-sparked blaze on the Malheur National Forest has grown to more than 60 square miles and has destroyed at least 26 homes.

Elsewhere in Washington, a wildfire threatened several homes in Stevens County. Firefighting forces were stretched so thin that many homeowners were left to battle the fires on their own.

And 200 active-duty Army troops are being mobilized to help fight the North Star Fire Complex north of Republic, in eastern Washington.

The fires also threaten apple orchards and packing warehouses in the heart of the state's apple belt during what has been a summer of drought in the Northwest.

Chelan Fruit lost one of its major fruit-packing warehouses in Chelan to wildfire on Friday. The warehouse contained 1.8 million pounds of apples and employed about 800 people, said Mac Riggan, director of marketing for the company.

The air was clouded with smoke in Spokane, about 150 miles east of the Chelan fire, on Monday.

Meanwhile, the Washington National Guard joined the firefighting efforts in the state. Two Black Hawk helicopters arrived Friday and five 20-person hand crews arrived Sunday evening to join 350 firefighters battling one of the state's most active fires, Cougar Creek, on the southeastern slopes of Mount Adams.

In northern Idaho on Monday more than 700 firefighters along with 40 fire engines and four helicopters were trying to protect homes from flames but residents along an 11-mile section of U.S. Highway 12 were told to be ready to flee.

On the Idaho-Oregon border some 800 firefighters had a 443-square-mile wildfire 90 percent contained. However, fire officials warned that strong winds and low humidity, which can cause extreme fire activity, could make the situation worse.

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