Washington Governor Declares Emergency as Crews Battle Fires

Gov. Christine Gregoire declared a wildfire emergency in Washington state Thursday, as firefighters scrambled to keep up with new lightning-sparked fires while battling a half-dozen large blazes already burning in Eastern Washington.

More thunderstorms with lightning were forecast for early Friday, raising fears that fire crews could be stretched even further if new fires start.

Fire officials were most concerned about a blaze northeast of Davenport and west of Spokane that forced the evacuation of about 20 homes. The Harker Canyon fire, estimated at about 1,500 acres Thursday, was believed to have been started by a spark from a wheat truck the day before.

Southwest winds predicted for the area could push the fire into residences, said Brock Shero of the state Department of Natural Resources.

''It's getting to the critical time where I'm getting apprehensive,'' he said.

About 200 firefighters were at the scene.

The largest blaze in the state, the 42,000-acre School fire in southeastern Washington near Pomeroy, was 40 percent contained, but was burning south toward cabins in the Umatilla National Forest, said John Townsley of the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center in Portland, Ore.

Federal fire officials said the fire had burned 49 residences and 38 outbuildings, with more charred areas to be checked. About 100 homes, some full-time homes and some seasonal cabins, remained evacuated.

About 1,400 firefighters were assigned to the fire. The cause of the blaze was under investigation.

Gregoire ordered state agencies to contribute to firefighting efforts, and announced she has alerted the National Guard for possible call up if crews need help.

''We're facing a siege of wildfires across our state,'' she told reporters at the Capitol as she signed the proclamation. ''There is a significant potential for us to continue to have large fires erupting on both sides of the state.''

No fire-related injuries were reported in the state.

The National Weather Service said an estimated 1,000 lightning strikes hit Eastern Washington on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings combined. More thunderstorms were expected into Friday, said Claudia Cox, a weather service meteorologist in Spokane.

Six new lightning-sparked fires burned in northcentral Washington's Methow Valley, ranging in size from a tenth of an acre to 30 acres, U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Robin DeMario said. All but one were contained Thursday, with the 30-acre fire 70 percent contained.

''There's still a lot of potential for more fires to occur. We still have at least two or three more weeks of good hot weather, so folks just need to take that extra time and care when they're out in the woods or when they're driving,'' DeMario said.

Northwest of the School fire, crews fought a 4,000-acre fire about 20 miles northeast of Richland. A sudden wind shift pushed the McClane fire into a new direction Wednesday night, damaging the fire camp. The fire has burned onto the Hanford Reach National Monument north of the Columbia River and was about 40 percent contained Thursday.

The Burnt Bread fire in northcentral Washington was 75 percent contained Thursday at about 1,350 acres. The Dirty Face fire, 18 miles northwest of Leavenworth, was 70 percent contained at 1,150 acres.

The 735-acre Lick Creek fire near Cle Elum was estimated at about 90 percent containment with full containment expected by the weekend.

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