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By Sunday morning, the Gray fire had scorched 10,800 acres within communities to the southwest of Spokane, showing no indications of being contained. Regrettably, there has been one reported fatality attributed to the fire.
The National Weather Service reported, a raging wildfire in eastern Washington State has left one person dead and destroyed dozens of structures as firefighters and emergency personnel race to contain multiple blazes across the state and in nearby British Columbia, Canada.
The Gray fire ignited around noon on Friday near the communities of Medical Lake and Four Lakes, located less than 20 miles southwest of Spokane. The blaze prompted immediate evacuations as it tore through grasslands and wheat fields, fueled by hot, dry weather and winds gusting up to 40 mph. By Sunday morning, the Gray fire had scorched over 10,800 acres and was still completely uncontained, according to the Washington Department of Natural Resources.
One fatality has been confirmed along with the loss of 185 structures so far, but officials fear the number could rise as damage assessment teams access the charred areas. The fire jumped roads and threatened homes on Friday before shifting direction on Saturday, bringing some relief to the towns of Medical Lake and Four Lakes. However, hazards remain in the fire's wake, including falling trees, downed power lines, and underground gas leaks. A red flag warning indicating dangerous fire weather conditions remains in effect through Sunday evening.
"All Medical Lake citizens, get out now," urged Mayor Terri Cooper on Facebook Friday afternoon as the fire closed in. City officials later recommended residents boil water before drinking due to potential contamination from the heavy smoke and ash. Hundreds of people frantically grabbed belongings, pets, and livestock to flee the encroaching flames.
A few pictures from the fire near Medical Lake pic.twitter.com/2I0OAvBBuf— SCSO Air 1 (@SCSOAir1) August 19, 2023
"My room turns orange and then turns red," described Jerry Hamilton, 54, who was inside his Medical Lake apartment when someone began urgently banging on his door around 4 pm Friday. Glancing outside, he was shocked to see the fire's amber glow and thick smoke nearby. People were running to their cars and shouting to others, "Get in the car - get in the car!"
For Councilman Zack Zappone of Spokane, the blaze destroyed his father's and uncle's homes, leaving nothing but ash and debris. When Zappone's stepmother returned to save her bulldog, she found herself surrounded by "a cloud of smoke" and embers raining from above. The dog was rescued by a neighbor, but the houses were totally flattened.
At a makeshift evacuation site at Spokane Falls Community College on Saturday, displaced and anxious Medical Lake residents sorted through donations while coming to terms with the disaster's scope. One man silently picked through stacks of clothes before embracing his weeping wife, who dabbed at tears with tissues.
"Well, there's no home left," Catherine Swan, 54, bluntly told an official who assured her they'd work quickly so she could go back. After seeing images of lava-like fire flows consuming neighbors' houses, Swan knew hers was gone too. "But I'm going to go back to the land, and we're going to regrow," she pledged.
Adding to Washington's woes, the Department of Natural Resources warned Friday that the Crater Creek fire burning in British Columbia, Canada since early July could easily jump the border into the US, pushed by winds. That massive blaze has already blackened over 54,000 acres, dwarfing the 28,000-acre Loomis Natural Resources Conservation Area in its potential path.
North of Spokane near the town of Elk, the 3,000-acre Oregon Road fire also poses a threat after breaking out Friday and destroying 30 structures so far. Resources are stretched thin with crews battling major blazes across the region. British Columbia declared a province-wide state of emergency Saturday as homes in suburbs of Kelowna fell victim to encroaching fires.
Farther north, residents of Yellowknife in Canada's Northwest Territories fled the capital city Saturday to escape a wildfire pressing closer. The city of 20,000 was nearly empty by evening as people heeded evacuation orders and fled the flames.
Canada has experienced an onslaught of wildfires across provinces this summer. Smoke drifting south has smothered areas of the US for weeks, creating unhealthy air quality.
Experts cite several factors driving the uptick in bigger, faster-moving wildfires in the western US and Canada. Years of drought have left forests and grasslands extremely dry and prone to igniting. Earlier snowmelt and hotter summer temperatures are also drying out vegetation weeks sooner.
Climate change plays a key role as well, with global warming leading to increased heat and aridity. Recent research confirmed the link between rising temperatures and wildfire risks, noting fires are growing in size while the fire season lasts over 2 months longer than in the 1970s.
Human activity further exacerbates the threats. Development expanding into wild areas provides more ignition sources via vehicles, grills, campfires, and electrical lines. Suppressing naturally occurring fires for decades also allowed fuel like dead trees and brush to build up unnaturally, especially in forests. When fires eventually break out, the amount of fuel creates infernos that overwhelm responders.
Better forest management practices like prescribed burns to clear out overgrowth could help reduce risks. However, with much of the West in "extreme" drought, areas will remain vulnerable to explosive fires. The Northwest may see no relief until the fall rainy season finally arrives.
Officials worry high winds and thunderstorms predicted over the next few days could fan flames and ignite new blazes. Fire season typically peaks in late summer before cooling temperatures and moisture decrease activity in September or October. But with climate impacts accelerating, severe fires occurring earlier and persisting later into the year may become the new norm.
For now, crews continue working around the clock to construct fire breaks and protect threatened communities across Washington and British Columbia. But depleted firefighting resources are stretched to the limit battling outbreaks across Western North America.
Since January 2022, over 44,000 fires have charred nearly 6.6 million acres in the US, well above average. Federal and state firefighting costs also exceeded $2.2 billion this year as of late July, rapidly depleting annual budgets. With ecosystems suffering long-term harm and homes destroyed, officials are seeking more proactive solutions before heavier damage and loss of life occurs.
In eastern Washington, the immediate priority remains protecting populated areas from the uncontrolled Gray and Oregon Road fires. However new evacuations could come at any time, depending on wind shifts or thunderstorm behavior. Those who were forced to flee Medical Lake and Elk have no timeline yet for when they might safely return, as assessments are just beginning.
For now, weary evacuees can only wait and hope the fires are contained before claiming more buildings or lives. Their towns will never be the same, with many landscapes permanently scarred by the devastating 2022 wildfire season. But residents vow to rebuild, trusting their communities will persevere even as the threat of mega-fires becomes a new fact of life.
Summarised from the original article: https://www.nytimes.com/2023/08/18/us/washington-wildfire-four-lakes.html
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