Brush fire burns 100,000 acres in southcentral Washington

PROSSER, Wash. - Crews set backfires in south-central Washington's parched sagebrush country Friday to combat a fast-moving 100,000-acre range fire sparked by lightning.

The blaze threatened 50 homes scattered across the Horse Heaven Hills area on and near the Yakama Nation reservation.

''If we can save one home or a farm - you'd like to save them all - then it's a done job,'' Paul Hill, a firefighter for Benton County Fire District 3 in Prosser.

A second fire - the Long House 2 - was burning in neighboring Klickitat County. The 600-acre lightning strike blaze was 50 percent contained Friday.

The Mule Dry fire, named for a creek running through the million-acre reservation, had consumed 24 outbuildings - pumphouses, sheds and one vacant mobile home - since it started Wednesday evening. A garage with a sport utility vehicle inside burned Friday morning.

Fifty homes were voluntarily evacuated when the flames got too close, and incident commander Dave Johnson said special teams had been dispatched to protect those residences.

''It's growing in size, spreading fairly quickly to the east. It's about a mile and a half from the Benton County line,'' said fire information officer Cynthia Reichelt of the U.S. Forest Service.

By burning out brush and grass and using the maze of farm-to-market roads in the area as natural firebreaks, crews hope to contain the advance of the blaze, she said.

Meanwhile, high winds fanned two major wildfires in Montana, resulting in additional damage to buildings in the Bitterroot Valley and more evacuations in that and on an 81,000-acre fire burning mostly scattered timber and cow pastures between Helena and Bozeman.

Temperatures into the 90s and 40 mph wind were expected in areas of the state where some of the 25 major fires are burning. The National Weather Service said the hot, breezy weather could continue through the weekend in Montana, as well as Idaho and Washington, providing ideal conditions for new fires.

''We just don't see a real end in sight,'' said E.Lynn Burkett, spokeswoman for the National Interagency Fire Center in Idaho.

About 400 firefighters were at Washington's fire scene Friday, when a 20-mile line of flame stretched across rolling Horse Heaven Hills. A blanket of smoke hung over the Yakima Valley, obscuring views of nearby hops fields and vineyards.

Wind and tinder-dry conditions were working against fire crews here in the high desert, where only about 7 inches of rain falls annually, most of it in the form of snow.

At least half the blaze was on Yakama Nation land, and crews were told to keep an eye out for culturally sensitive areas when working with bulldozers and shovels.

The Mule Dry fire is northwest and across Interstate 82 from the site of the 190,000-acre Hanford fire, which blackened half the nuclear reservation at the end of June.

The Mule Dry is Yakima County's third fire this summer and many hills around the reservation are already burned over, which might help firefighters with this blaze, Johnson said.

''It's helpful when it's in the right spot,'' he said. ''But it's never in the right spot.''

A caravan of fire trucks lined the Mabton-Bickleton Road on Friday, while firefighters with diesel drip torches touched off a line of flame to burn out vegetation at the edge of the fire. Thick black smoke could be seen for miles.

The vegetation fueling the blaze has a moisture level of about 9 percent or 10 percent - considered very dry. In comparison, the moisture content of newspaper is about 17 percent.

The fire was started by a lightning strike Wednesday night in a remote area of the Yakama Nation reservation. Early reports indicating as many as 50 homes had been lost turned out to be unfounded, said Yakima County Fire District 5 dispatcher Jim Glossen.

A statewide outdoor burning ban is in effect.


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