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Spokane County declares emergency as Gray and Elk fires continue to burn

A 32-mile section of Interstate 90 is closed between Sprague and the intersection of U.S. 2 because of smoke and flames visible from the roadway.
Courtesy of Washington Department of Transportation
A 20-mile stretch of Interstate 90 between Tyler and the junction with US-2 remains closed.

UPDATE Sat. 7:45 pm: Washington Governor Jay Inslee has proclaimed a statewide emergency. Inslee's office says the state Military Department has activated the State Emergency Operations Center. It is coordinating resources to support state and local officials as they help people, property, and infrastructure. The Military Department says it continues to assess the wildfire danger around the state.

In an emergency meeting Saturday, Spokane County Commissioners declared a state of emergency because of fires burning near Medical Lake and Elk.

The blaze near Medical Lake, called the Gray fire, has grown to more than an estimated 8,000 acres, and is still burning in the West Plains.

The emergency declaration gives the county and first responders more flexibility to react, according to a statement released Saturday afternoon. The declaration allows the county to “speed up the processes for the county and local organizations to rapidly deploy funding and resources; seek state and federal assistance when needed, and grant greater flexibility in response efforts,” the statement said.

The fire started around noon Friday, burning through wheat stubble on a hill southwest of Medical Lake, Spokane County Fire District 3 Chief Cody Rohrbach said in a press briefing Saturday afternoon. It was fueled by hot weather, dry fuels and high winds. The fast-moving fire led to evacuations in Medical Lake, Four Lakes and around other small lakes in the area.

One death has been reported so far. The county is besieged by air that authorities consider hazardous. Click here and here to find out more about wildlife smoke.

Rohrbach said about 185 structures had been lost in the fire. He said firefighters worked through the night to protect as many structures as they could and evacuate affected communities.

He said firefighters had run a practice simulation to protect vulnerable healthcare facilities the day before, and were able to protect Lakeland Village and Eastern State Hospital.

Rohrbach told reporters he hoped to be able to share more detailed information on the size of the Gray fire, and how many structures it has claimed, later Saturday.

Spokane County Sheriff John Nowels asked the public to stay away from areas that have been evacuated, saying they’re still dangerous.

“There are still active fires burning in those areas,” Nowels said. “When people come in, and put themselves at risk, we have to shift our focus from making it safe for the firefighters do their job, and shift our focus to addressing the people in those areas.”

He said county emergency responders will let the public know when it’s safe to return home.

In the statement announcing the state of emergency, County Commission chair Mary Kuney said, “With today’s declaration, we are taking immediate action to respond to these devastating fires and address the urgent needs of residents in the affected communities. In the coming days, we will continue working side by side with local, state, and federal partners to respond to the impacts of these wildfires.”

Evacuation shelters and other resources are available for those affected by the wildfires. Evacuees can go to:

Spokane Falls Community College, 3410 W Whistalks Way, Spokane, WA

Riverside High School, 4120 E Deer Park Milan Road, Chattaroy, WA

Individuals can contact the Red Cross for assistance at (509) 326-3330 or

The Spokane County Fairgrounds and Expo Center is open to shelter large animals or livestock from evacuated areas.

One bit of good news for Medical Lake residents: the Washington Department of Health is no longer requiring residents to boil the water they use for drinking. One exception: people in the area directly affected by the fire, including those who live on:

  • Hallett Street south of the elementary school including Jim Darby Drive
  • Stanley Street (south of Campbell)
  • Evergreen Drive
  • Legg Street (south of Campbell)
  • Stanley Drive
  • Lake Shore Drive
  • Stanley Court
  • Grant (between Evergreen Drive and Stanley Drive)
  • Pine View Drive
  • Silver Lake Avenue

As air quality in the region soared to dangerous levels, the city of Spokane announced the Trent homeless shelter will also act as a safe place for people to seek relief from the smoke. All Spokane city libraries serve the same purpose during regular business hours, the city said, except for the Hillyard Library. That location closed Saturday afternoon because of poor air quality inside the building, according to city human services spokesman Brian Walker and Skyler Noble of the library system.
All previously closed routes remained closed early Saturday afternoon. The list includes:

- I-90 is closed both directions from Sprague to the U.S. Highway 2 interchange (MP 245 to MP 277).
- SR 902, the entire length of the roadway

In far northern Spokane County, the Oregon Road fire near Elk has grown to more than 3,000 acres. More than 150 homes are still threatened. About 30 structures burned.

For the most up-to-date evacuation maps, officials recommended residents check the Spokane County Emergency ManagementFacebook page.

One of the Northwest's most seasoned reporters is returning to his SPR roots. Doug Nadvornick will be heard frequently on KPBX and KSFC reporting on local news.
Brandon Hollingsworth is your All Things Considered host. He has served public radio audiences for fifteen years, primarily in reporting, hosting and interviewing. His previous ports-of-call were WUOT-FM in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Alabama Public Radio. His work has been heard nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Here and Now and NPR’s top-of-the-hour newscasts.