Washington State Residents Return to Homes Burned Down by Wildfire

Tom Bryant describes the fire that destroyed his home the night before, Monday, June 29, 2015, in Wenatchee, Wash. (Elaine Thompson/Associated Press)
Tom Bryant describes the fire that destroyed his home the night before, Monday, June 29, 2015, in Wenatchee, Wash. (Elaine Thompson/Associated Press)

Tom Bryant watched the central Washington state wildfire advance up a hillside toward his home, then turned to tell his wife it was time to evacuate.

That’s when the front door burst open and a firefighter rushed in.

“He doesn’t knock,” Bryant recalled Monday. “He ran in the door and said to get out.”

Bryant and his wife and pets jumped into their vehicle and evacuated safely. But their home was one of two dozen destroyed in a fast-moving wildfire Sunday night in this city about 120 miles east of Seattle. A handful of businesses were also destroyed in the downtown core when flames spread there.

Firefighters on Monday kept a close eye on the wildfire, which has burned more than 4 square miles. It was considered sufficiently corralled that evacuees were allowed to go back to their homes. The Red Cross closed a shelter that housed 155 people Sunday night at a local high school.

The season’s worst wildfire struck as the state is struggling with a severe drought. Mountain snowpack is at extremely low levels, and about one-fifth of the state’s rivers and streams are at record low levels.

Rainfall on Monday provided some relief, but hot, dry conditions were expected to persist throughout the week as crews deal with this and other wild land fires.

Last week Washington Gov. Jay Inslee issued an emergency proclamation that allowed state resources to quickly be brought in to respond to wildfires.

At his home, Bryant found the burned remains of his vintage Shelby Mustang GT 500 sports car, buried in ash amid the devastation.

“It hurts, but it’s just stuff,” Bryant said.

Meanwhile, his wife searched for a missing cat.

Down the road, neighbor Vern Smith was in San Jose, California, on Sunday evening attending a 50th reunion concert of The Grateful Dead.

“I was getting horrifying text messages from my family,” Smith said Monday afternoon, as smoke continued to rise from the ashes of his home.

His wife Julie got the kids and pets out, but the contents were destroyed in a blaze that left only brick work standing.

“You can’t tell from here, but that’s a brand new pickup,” Smith said, pointing to the charred remains of a truck in what was once the garage.

“Everybody’s safe and the animals are good,” Smith said. “We’ve got insurance.”

Three firefighters suffered minor injuries, but no injuries to residents were reported.

Elsewhere in central Washington, a new wildfire was reported burning late Monday south of the small town of Mansfield, about 40 miles northeast of Wenatchee. The state Emergency Management agency authorized state assistance to fight that fire, which reportedly has burned more than 3 square miles. The Washington State Patrol said three homes and a ranch were threatened.

Many of the destroyed Wenatchee houses were in an upscale neighborhood located on a hillside. Burned homes sat next to residences that were not damaged. Weeping residents drove through the streets on Monday.

“These were all really nice homes,” said Joan Mullene, whose home survived. “It’s really devastating.”

Dominick Bonny watched the neighborhood burn from just across the Wenatchee River.

“With the wind blowing away from us, it was like we were watching a natural disaster within arm’s reach,” he said, calling the speed of the blaze “just mind-blowing.”

Albert Rookard, who also lives across the Wenatchee River from the blaze, stayed up late watching the fire, and he was shocked at how fast it grew.

“From here, we could see embers just flying,” Rookard said. “There was fire in so many places.”

Officials know the fire started in brush on the edge of town, but they are still trying to determine what sparked it.

Sweltering heat above 100 degrees, tinder-dry brush and strong winds helped fuel the flames.

Last month, Inslee declared a statewide drought emergency.

Evacuations were mainly in the north end of town and included a Wal-Mart store, the Chelan County Emergency Management office said. The store did not burn, but several commercial buildings were near the blaze, State Patrol Trooper Darren Wright said.

SOURCE: Nicholas K. Geranios and Donna Blankinship 

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