Washington state wildfire grows, more evacuations urged

SEATTLE Thu Jul 17, 2014 3:07pm EDT

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SEATTLE (Reuters) - A fast-moving Washington state wildfire raging in the Cascade Mountains grew in size to threaten roughly 1,700 dwellings on Thursday near the Bavarian-style village of Leavenworth, officials said.

The Chiwaukum Creek fire continued to rage out of control through timber in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest and on private land, two days after it was triggered by a lightning strike, according to the Chelan County Emergency Management office.

Evacuation orders were issued for about 900 homes and dwellings late on Wednesday, and residents at another 800 addresses were later also encouraged to leave the area. Few have complied, emergency management spokeswoman Eileen Ervin said.

“People in this area are very self-sufficient. They stay until the very last minute,” she said, adding that while several emergency shelters have opened in the area, only four people were reported to have checked in on Wednesday night.

The blaze is among the latest to strike in the nation's drought-parched Western states as the summer fire season heats up. Low humidity, high temperatures and strong winds have made conditions ripe for wildfires from northern California to Idaho.

Multiple brush and wildfires have broken out in the Pacific Northwest in the past week, forcing governors in both Oregon and Washington to declare emergencies in some regions, clearing the path for assistance from the National Guard.

The Chiwaukum Creek fire, fanned by strong winds and dry conditions, grew to about 1,300 acres by Thursday morning, up from about 450 acres a day earlier, Ervin said.

It sent a plume of smoke 20,000 feet into the air that could be seen from Seattle, about 100 miles (160 km) to the west.

A stretch of U.S. Highway 2 from Leavenworth, a resort town modeled to resemble a Bavarian hamlet, to the Alpine ski area at Stevens Pass remained closed early Thursday as fire crews backed by air tankers worked to prevent the blaze from jumping the road.

“That’s when things would really escalate,” Ervin said.

Elsewhere in Washington state, the much larger Mill Canyon fire further east near the town of Entiat, along the Columbia River, has blackened at least 22,500 acres but did not grow significantly overnight, fire officials said.

In neighboring Oregon, Governor John Kitzhaber warned that the state was facing a “severe fire season.”

“Conditions are dry and new fires are starting daily," he said on Wednesday after declaring the state of emergency.

In Malheur County in eastern Oregon, separate fires, including two that merged Wednesday, have charred 180,000 acres, or 280 square miles. That blaze was 20 percent contained, officials said.

Livestock, outbuildings, agricultural land and several ranches in the area were being threatened, according to the Bureau of Land Management.

(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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