Hundreds of firefighters battling 5,300-acre Goldendale wildfire

Hundreds of firefighters battling 5,300-acre Goldendale wildfire

Credit: KING

Hundreds of firefighters battling 5,300-acre Goldendale wildfire


KING 5 News and Associated Press

Posted on September 9, 2011 at 7:28 AM

GOLDENDALE, Wash. -- Firefighters are working around the clock to contain a 5,300-acre wildfire burning for two days near Satus Pass north of Goldendale.

The National Weather Service says a high pressure system over the Northwest should last through the weekend with cooler temperatures returning later Monday.

The Greek Orthodox nuns from a south-central Washington monastery dumped water on smoldering tree trunks and embers Thursday, grateful for their safety and their still-standing buildings a day after a wildfire burned around their forested sanctuary.

Others weren’t so lucky: State officials confirmed that nine homes and 10 outbuildings had burned in a wildfire that has charred more than 8 square miles.  Another 75 homes were evacuated overnight Thursday.

Gov. Chris Gregoire met Thursday night with about 50 of the roughly 300 residents driven from their homes by the fire. She assured them that the state would do everything it can to protect their homes and property despite a budget crunch.

“The thing I want people to know when they’re evacuated from their homes is we are not going to be cheap about protecting their property,” Gregoire said at the Klickitat County fairgrounds, where the Red Cross has set up an evacuation center under the grandstands.

About 300 firefighters are fighting the blaze that started Wednesday. There is no estimate when it might be contained.

A fire incident commander described the blaze to the evacuees as “a greased pig rodeo,” blown first in one direction, then another by shifting winds.

Earlier in the day, state Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark visited with firefighters and flew over the wildfire to assess the damage.

“There’s still a lot of residences in danger, but we’ve got a lot of resources in the air and on the ground,” he said. “Plenty of people have shared resources at a difficult time.”

Washington is experiencing an especially late start to its fire season following a winter with heavy snows and a cool spring.

Goldmark urged residents to be especially cautious given the dry conditions. Of the 500 wildfires in Washington this year, roughly 90 percent have been human-caused, he said.

The cause of this fire is under investigation, but residents say a pickup’s muffler may have sparked it.

“We need people to be extra vigilant not to conduct activities that will start fires,” Goldmark said. “They’re obviously very expensive and very destructive of private property and human health.”

The fire was believed to have started along U.S. Highway 97 north of Goldendale, just across the street from the Monastery of St. John the Forerunner. The 19 nuns and employees, who operate a well-known bakery there, saw flames and immediately ran outside with water, rakes and rags to beat back the fire.

Several customers in the bakery also joined in the effort until firefighters arrived, said Sister Parthenia, who has been at the monastery for 19 years.

“We’re just so grateful to God and everyone’s efforts. The firefighters worked so hard, even opened up a line up there,” she said, pointing behind one of their buildings. “We thought that was sweet they wanted to save our barn.”

The nuns evacuated their dozen-or-so goats. The flames crept up to the edge of their buildings and a cemetery, leaving the wooden crosses intact.

“It was very scary,” said Sister Theopisti. “Thanks to the blessings of God and prayer.”

There were no reports of any injuries, said Dale Warriner, interagency management team spokesman. Brooks Memorial State Park is closed. Traffic is disrupted on Highway 97 between Toppenish and Goldendale.