The fire was the worst so far this season
(WENATCHEE, Wash.) — Surveying the smoldering ruins of his upscale home in this central Washington city, Vern Smith pointed to what had been his garage.
“You can’t tell from here, but that’s a brand new truck,” Smith said, looking at the burned vehicle.
Smith was among those in Wenatchee searching for something to salvage after a fast-moving wildfire destroyed two dozen houses and several businesses.
The fire, which began Sunday, was the worst so far this season as the state struggles with a severe drought. Mountain snowpack is extremely low, and about one-fifth of the state’s rivers and streams are at record low levels.
By Tuesday evening, fire officials reported progress against the fire that has burned more than 4 square miles on the north side of the city, even as they cautioned that more hot, dry weather lies ahead for the July 4 holiday. Fire spokeswoman Kay McKellar said the fire was 47 percent contained, up from 10 percent Tuesday morning.
The fire destroyed 24 homes in the Broadview neighborhood. Downtown, two major fruit-packing houses and two other fruit-related businesses were heavily damaged by flames, losses that will likely total tens of millions of dollars. Wenatchee is a major center of the state’s apple-growing industry.
The cause of the fire remains under investigation, Nathan Rabe, the fire incident commander, told a news briefing Tuesday.
Nearly 250 firefighters were on the scene, contending with 100-degree temperatures and breezy winds. There have been no major injuries.
Chief Mike Burnett of Chelan County Fire District 1 said Sunday’s flames could have been much more destructive. “It’s amazing no one didn’t get hurt,” Burnett said.
The flames in the downtown core burned near BNSF railroad tracks, temporarily halting rail operations including Amtrak service through the agricultural city. BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas said the main line reopened Tuesday night.
Dry conditions caused by this year’s prolonged drought helped spread the flames, but initial firefighting efforts did a good job of saving many homes, Rabe said.
“The burning conditions we are in are extreme,” he said.
Tom Bryant watched the flames charge up a hillside toward his home Sunday afternoon, then turned and told his wife it was time to go.
That’s when the front door burst open and a firefighter rushed in.
“He doesn’t knock,” Bryant recalled. “He ran in the door and said to get out.”
Bryant, his wife and pets jumped into their vehicle escaped. But their home was one of the two dozen destroyed.
At his home Monday, Bryant found the burned remains of his vintage Shelby Mustang GT 500 sports car, buried in ash. “It hurts, but it’s just stuff,” he said, while his wife searched for their missing cat.
Smith also noted that things could be much worse. “Everybody is safe and the animals are good. We’ve got insurance,” he said Monday.
Elsewhere in central Washington, a new wildfire was reported late Monday south of the small town of Mansfield, about 40 miles northeast of Wenatchee. State assistance was authorized to fight that fire, which has burned across nearly 5 ½ square miles of sagebrush and grass. That fire was reported 50 percent contained by Tuesday night and no longer threatened any homes.