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Fire authorities warn about repeat of 2020 fire season in eastern Washington

Whitman County fire
Courtesy of Whitman County Sheriff's Office
The Riparia fire in Whitman County started late Thursday afternoon and grew rapidly overnight.

That season, like this one, began slowly, but blew up around Labor Day.

Federal emergency authorities are opening the checkbook to help fight the wildfire burning near Lind in Adams County. The fire ignited Thursday afternoon in windy weather and burned six homes and eight other structures. Lind residents were asked to evacuate, though later in the evening, were allowed to return.

FEMA Regional Administrator Willie Nunn says he agreed to devote federal resources to the fire because it threatened many of the town’s important features, such as the local airport, critical communications infrastructure, a rail line along U.S. 395 and two public schools.

The Lind fire is one of several that started this week in eastern Washington. State Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz warns residents to buckle up.

“Although fire activity has remained relatively low for this time of year, we cannot forget 2020,” she said during a Friday morning media briefing. “While we had a light season in the spring and early summer of 2020, we all tragically remember the Labor Day firestorm where, just in 72 hours, we lost a significant amount of structures and some life and an enormous amount of fires.”

Russ Lane, the agency’s fire operations chief, says crews are making progress on some of the largest fires, including the Vantage Highway fire, the state’s largest at about 30,000 acres. He says crews have stopped the fire on its east flank near the Columbia River. He says firefighters are concentrating Friday on stopping it from advancing to the west, where it threatens a wind farm.

The Cow Canyon fire is threatening homes near Naches. Lane says the fire team there planned to attack it from the air on Friday.

At the Williams Lake fire, about 10 miles southeast of Cheney, Lane said fire crews managed to stop the flames from making a big push on Thursday afternoon. As of Friday morning, that fire had consumed about 1,500 acres and was 30% contained.

Lane expressed concern about the Riparia fire, burning near the Snake River in Whitman County. The fire ignited late Thursday afternoon and had grown to 6,000 acres overnight. State firefighters are headed there to help local fire districts. He says that fire will be challenging to control because of the steep, complex terrain.

Lane says the fires have not only burned fields and homes, they’ve overcome two fire engines, one a Spokane Fire District 3 vehicle at the Williams Lake blaze, and another truck from one of the Grant County agencies at the Lind fire.

He says crews have been able to attack fires early and keep them smaller because they have more resources from the state at their disposal this summer.

“We’re catching literally dozens of fires in that small-to-moderate size range that typically don’t make the news,” he said.