State of emergency declared as Cle Elum wildfire grows

State of emergency declared as Cle Elum wildfire grows
CLE ELUM, Wash. (AP) - Gusty winds and high temperatures hampered efforts Tuesday to control a fast-moving wildfire that has already destroyed 70 homes and burned across nearly 45 square miles on the east slope of the Cascades.

The fire was burning on grassland, timber and sagebrush east of Cle Elum, a small, central Washington town about 75 miles east of Seattle.

At least 900 people have been evacuated, but no injuries were reported from the blaze, which began at a bridge construction site Monday afternoon, Department of Natural Resources Fire Incident Commander Rex Reed said.

A number of homes that burned were along Bettas Road near Cle Elum. An Associated Press photographer witnessed about eight people using hand tools to cut a fire line in an attempt to protect one home.

Fire commanders estimated the blaze has burned across at least 28,000 acres. On Tuesday evening, Reed said the fire is 10 percent contained. He said that containment line was built around the southeast corner of the Taylor Bridge Fire. Fire crews were arriving from across the state Tuesday, with as many as 600 expected by the end of the day.

Joe Seemiller, a captain in Kittitas County Fire and Rescue, and his crews monitored the edge of the fire Tuesday near the Yakima River, trying to keep it from crossing where there is a subdivision of homes nearby on the other side.

"Unless Mother Nature helps us out here, we're going to be fighting this awhile," Seemiller said.

Gov. Chris Gregoire declared a state of emergency for Kittitas and Yakima counties Tuesday afternoon and will allocate additional firefighting resources to the fast-moving wildfire. The Department of Natural Resources has requested air support from the Washington National Guard to assist in containment efforts.

Because Gregoire is on vacation in Ireland, Lt. Gov. Brad Owen signed the proclamation at her request. Gregoire spokesman Cory Curtis says that Gregoire plans to be back in the state next week, but is getting hourly updates on the fire.

Vacation homes and cabins pepper the scattered forests around Cle Elum, and summer is a popular time to visit the mountains and escape the heat.

Brad Rorem and his two sons were at their family cabin high on a hill up a windy, forest road. They were preparing gear to float the Yakima River and fish when they spotted the blaze under the bridge from their deck.

"It sort of erupted, and the wind was blowing hard in our faces," he said. "It just shot up so fast."

The homes of at least three neighbors were gone, said Rorem, 50, of North Bend.

"We feel really fortunate to have gotten off the mountain in time," he said.

Joe Seemiller, a captain in Kittitas County Fire and Rescue, and his crews monitored the edge of the fire Tuesday near the Yakima River, trying to keep it from crossing where there is a subdivision of homes nearby on the other side.

"Unless Mother Nature helps us out here, we're going to be fighting this awhile," Seemiller said.

400 in the dark

The fire has knocked out power to about 400 people on the Kittitas County PUD system, said utility spokesperson Matt Boast.

"The fire comes through, burns the poles off at the ground and the (power) lines come down," Boast said.

He said the losses account for about 10 percent of their system and initial estimates are they lost 40 or more electrical pole structures. Contractors are en route and the utility is working to get materials and crews out.

And they're warning those in the dark it could be that way for quite some time.

"We are telling our customers initially to plan for the worst and hope the best, but we're looking at for some remote customers it could be as long as two weeks (without power)," Boast said. "For some it will come on sooner."

'Miles of fire front'

About 15 evacuees stayed overnight at Munson Hall on the Central Washington University campus in Ellensburg, said spokesman Robert Lowery. The building is a dormitory usually used for conferences and could take a total of 150 evacuees, he said.

The fire also threatened a chimpanzee sanctuary. "They definitely know there's weirdness happening," Outreach Director Diana Goodrich said Tuesday. "There are still fire trucks here, and they're curious about them."

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

The fire started along Highway 10 between Ellensburg and Cle Elum, said Kent Verbeck, a commissioner and one of the volunteers with Fire District 7. Dry terrain and windy conditions pushed it quickly.

"It eventually got so big and spread so much late last night we were dealing with miles of fire front," he said.

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 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.

"I slept in my own house for an hour this morning, so I feel pretty fortunate," he said. "It could have been a lot worse."

Hot, dry conditions were expected to continue in the region through the week, and authorities worried about the extreme fire danger.

"We've had a long prolonged dry period - three weeks with no precipitation at all," Reed said. "This fire could go any one direction."

Map of fire as of Tuesday morning: