WENATCHEE, Wash. (Reuters) - Families whose homes were destroyed in a massive grassland wildfire in Washington state were returning to scenes of destruction on Tuesday as firefighters fought to contain the virtually unchecked blaze, officials said.
Fueled by extreme heat and gusting winds, the so-called Sleepy Hollow fire has scorched nearly 3,000 acres (1,200 hectares) of rolling grasslands and brush around the city of Wenatchee since it erupted on a parched central Washington hillside on Sunday. The blaze was just 10 percent contained late on Tuesday.
At least 24 residences were destroyed or badly damaged at the north end of the city of some 30,000 residents, as were four downtown businesses including a recycling plant, an agricultural chemical distributor and two packing plants, said Kay McKellar, a fire management team spokeswoman.
Mandatory evacuation orders for several hundred homes had been lifted late on Tuesday in the Wenatchee area, though some roads were closed.
Residents and family members of the portion of the city where homes where burned were allowed to return to assess damage and gather belongings, McKellar said.
In the quiet neighborhood, there was a little tent set up with two women and children giving away cold drinks and snacks in what they said was an effort to raise peoples’ spirits as building contractors, cable company workers, insurance adjusters and residents milled about.
“I don’t even have a fork or a plate or clothing,” resident Diane Reed, who lost her home in the blaze, told local broadcaster KOMO. “Just the basic things you take for granted. It’s just gone.”
Washington experienced its worst wildfire season on record last year, with the Carlton Complex fires blackening 250,000 acres (100,000 hectares). It has tallied more than 300 wildfires so far this year, according to the Natural Resources Department.
The Sleepy Hollow blaze is one of dozens of large wildfires flaring across the western United States, including some 27 in Alaska alone, where 395,841 acres (160,191 hectares) have burned, the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, reported.
In California, a woman stranded in the forest told San Francisco area media she started a forest fire in a call for help.
North of Seattle, police were searching for two men who set several brush fires along Interstate 5, state police and local media reported. Firefighters managed to extinguish the blazes by mid-afternoon, state police said.
Reporting by David Ryder in Wenatchee, Washington; Additional reporting by Eric M. Johnson in Seattle; Editing by Eric Walsh