By: Jonathan Kaminsky | Reuters
OLYMPIA, Washington (Reuters) - Firefighters battled wildfires across the West on Tuesday, including a massive out-of-control blaze that has destroyed at least 60 homes and burned more than 28,000 acres between two national forests in Washington state.
Another 400 homes were evacuated in the rolling hills between the northwest Washington towns of Cle Elum and Ellensburg, at the eastern edge of the Cascade Mountains, prompting Governor Christine Gregoire to declare a state of emergency in two counties.
The massive Taylor Bridge Fire was among more than a dozen wildfires burning across the West, which is wilting under a heat wave that has sent temperatures into the triple digits.
Together, the fires have burned some 500,000 acres across Idaho, Washington, Oregon and California.
Across the nation, wildfires have consumed roughly 6 million acres (2.4 million hectares) this year, above the 10-year average of 4.9 million acres, according to figures from the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.
Authorities said the Washington state fire was started on Monday afternoon by workers at a construction site east of Cle Elum, about 75 miles southeast of Seattle.
"We don't know what the actual cause was. We have no indication it was intentional," said Nancy Jones, a spokeswoman for a state emergency response team.
With strong winds and no rain in the area for three weeks, more damage is likely, said Bryan Flint, spokesman for the Department of Natural Resources.
Winds are pushing the fire east toward an area of mostly farmland, although more homes are in its path, Jones said. The fire is burning just 4 miles northwest of Ellensburg and 10 miles south of the Wenatchee National Forest.
South of the fire is the Snoqualmie National Forest.
"All Washingtonians stand with those who have lost their homes and property in the Taylor Bridge Fire," Gregoire said in a written statement. "The destruction overnight is a stark reminder of how quickly and unexpectedly wildfire can move."
FIRES BURN IN CALIFORNIA
In northern California, more than 1,100 firefighters spent a third day attacking a pair of wildfires that have destroyed two homes in Lake County's Spring Valley area and charred some 7,000 acres.
Firefighters had contained only 30 percent of the two blazes burning dry brush in remote Lake and Colusa counties, said Daniel Berlant, a California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman.
They did not expect full containment for a week.
But firefighters made enough progress attacking one of the fires that authorities lifted an evacuation order for 480 homes in the Spring Valley area on Monday night, he said.
Berlant said the flames had moved east into Colusa County and continued to threaten the area around Wilbur Hot Springs, a 147-year-old resort that offers clothing-optional bathing in mineral water.
Owner Richard Miller said he and 15 employees had to flee the property, which was closed on Sunday for 12 days of maintenance.
"It is in jeopardy," Miller said. "There's fire surrounding it."
But he was confident the California Department of Forestry would protect the retreat, which includes a stucco hotel built in 1910 and nine homes.
"Wilbur is a charmed and magical place and it has all the luck," Miller said.
Two firefighters suffered minor injuries while working the blaze in triple-digit temperatures.
Suzann Thompson, who works the front desk at Clear Lake Cottages and Marina, said the fires decimated business throughout the area. Clear Lake, the biggest lake in California, is a popular tourist attraction.
"It's really a catastrophe," she said.
(Additional reporting by Ronnie Cohen in San Francisco; Laura Zuckerman in Salmon, Idaho; Teresa Carson in Portland; and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Writing by Dan Whitcomb and Mary Slosson; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Bill Trott and Lisa Shumaker)