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Firefighters brace for windy weather in eastern Washington

July 15, 2021 GMT

NESPELEM, Wash. (AP) — A lightning-caused wildfire that destroyed seven homes and led to the evacuation of the town of Nespelem continued to burn in north-central Washington Wednesday while a fire near Wenatchee prompted mandatory evacuations and the execution of a search warrant as investigators seek its cause.

Firefighters across eastern Washington braced for the arrival of strong winds that could fan the flames of existing wildfires. The National Weather Service issued a red flag warning for much of eastern Washington beginning Wednesday afternoon and ending Thursday evening.

The weather conditions have the potential to expand wildfires around the region, including the fire near Nespelem, two massive fire complexes south of Clarkston, Washington, and the fire near Wenatchee.

The fire burning on the Colville Indian Reservation grew to 34 square miles (88 square kilometers) but containment also grew from zero to 20% as of Wednesday night. The Chuweah Creek Fire has burned seven homes, four of which were vacant.

Nespelem, which has about 200 residents, was evacuated Monday night and remains under evacuation notice, said Colville Tribal Chairman Andrew “Badger” Joseph Jr. Driven by wind and fueled with tall grass, sagebrush and timber, the fire moved toward town and the Colville Indian Agency Monday.

“Police and people were coming by the houses asking people to get up and go,” Joseph told The Spokesman-Review. “They can’t make you do that, but a lot of people evacuated – our convalescent seniors, our nursing home was evacuated.”

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The fire killed an unknown number of livestock, and some animals were severely injured and had to be euthanized. Many more are missing.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has authorized the use of federal funds to help with firefighting costs for the Chuweah Creek Fire, after deciding it threatened to cause such destruction as to constitute a major disaster. The fire threatens roads, tribal government buildings, a tribal prison, parks and recreation facilities, farms, utilities, the local watershed, streams and fish spawning sites, as well as locations of cultural significance, FEMA said.

The Red Apple Fire in Chelan County started Tuesday evening and is burning grass and sage between the towns of Cashmere and Wenatchee along US Highway 2.

The blaze grew to an estimated 14 square miles (36 square kilometers) by Wednesday and is threatening homes, orchards and a power substation, according to the Washington state Department of Natural Resources. A state of emergency has been declared in Chelan County.

An estimated 1,065 homes in the Sunnyslope area are at risk and those residents have been told to evacuate immediately, The Seattle Times reported. Hundreds more homes and structures around Red Apple Road to the Sunnyslope areas are also under some form of evacuation order, Annie Schmidt, a spokesperson for the Chelan County Fire District in Leavenworth, told the newspaper.

On Wednesday evening, the Chelan County Sheriff’s Office said in a news release that their detectives helped the Chelan County Fire Marshal and BLM Fire investigators execute a search warrant at a nearby residence believed to be the origin of the fire. The investigation remains active and more information will be released later, the sheriff’s office said.

Firefighters were bracing for an expected cold front late Wednesday that was forecast to bring 25-to-30-mph (40-kph) winds to fires burning near the town of Asotin. Bill Queen, an information officer on the Lick Creek Fire, said the change in weather is expected to arrive about 10 p.m. and last through mid-morning Thursday.

Officials, out of an abundance of caution, upgraded evacuation notices in that area Wednesday evening for people to be set to evacuate.

Firefighters on the 99-square mile (256-square kilometer) blaze that is 20% contained have been working for days to widen fire lines. Queen said firefighters hope to hold the west and southwest flanks and keep the fire out of much steeper terrain.

“We are really trying to keep it as small as we can,” Queen told The Lewiston Tribune. “If we are not able to do that, it just becomes that much more difficult to deal with, on a potentially much larger landscape and with the resources we currently have.”

Extreme conditions like these are often from a combination of unusual random, short-term and natural weather patterns heightened by long-term, human-caused climate change. Scientists have long warned that the weather will get wilder as the world warms.