WENATCHEE, Wash. » From just across the Wenatchee River, Dominick Bonny watched a whole neighborhood in his central Washington town burn as a wildfire destroyed two dozen homes and forced hundreds to flee.
"With the wind blowing away from us, it was like we were watching a natural disaster within arm’s reach," he said.
The wildfires hit parts of central and eastern Washington over the weekend as the state is struggling with a severe drought. Mountain snowpack is at extremely low levels, and about one-fifth of the state’s rivers and streams are at record low levels.
Eastern Washington has been experiencing temperatures into the 100s, and last week Washington Gov. Jay Inslee issued an emergency proclamation that allows state resources to quickly be brought in to respond to wildfires.
Washington’s struggles with wildfires come as Alaska, its fellow Pacific Northwest state, is facing more and harsher wildfires this year.
In Wenatchee, the wildfire fueled by high temperatures and strong winds roared into town Sunday afternoon. The blaze ignited in brush just outside Wenatchee, quickly burning out of control about 120 miles east of Seattle.
Rainfall on Monday provided relief, but hot, dry conditions and wind could challenge crews trying to get a handle on the flames that burned more than an estimated 4 square miles, officials said. Three firefighters suffered minor injuries, but no injuries to residents were reported.
Fire crews were concentrating on preventing any more homes from being burned Monday, State Patrol Trooper Brian Moore said. Crews were working to put out hot spots in already burned areas, while keeping an eye on winds that were expected to reach 15 to 20 mph Monday evening and could fan flames again.
Tom Bryant surveyed the smoldering ruins of his home in the hills above Wenatchee and said he and his wife had to race out of the house at the last minute as the fire advanced Sunday night.
On Monday, he pointed to a Mustang sports car that was a burned wreck and to his BMW motorcycle that was destroyed in the garage.
"It’s going to be tough to replace," Bryant said. "It hurts, but it’s just stuff. It’s painful."
He was unable to save photographs and important documents, Bryant said. "That’s where all our stuff is," he said, pointing to a burned file cabinet.
Evacuations were mainly in the north end of town and included a Wal-Mart store, the Chelan County Emergency Management office said. The store did not burn, but several commercial buildings were near the blaze, Washington State Patrol Trooper Darren Wright said.
Emergency management officials late Monday morning also briefly issued a shelter-in-place order after ammonia started leaking from a fruit warehouse. They later said it had dissipated and was no longer a threat.
The Blue Bird warehouse, which uses ammonia for cold-storage, was among a few commercial buildings to burn.
Bonny, who lives just outside Wenatchee, called the speed of the blaze "just mind-blowing."
Phil Bentz, who lives on the same side of the river as the fire, said his home hadn’t been evacuated. "We were waiting for someone to knock on the door, but they didn’t come. So far, so good," Bentz said.
About noon Monday, fire trucks poured water on a burning warehouse in downtown Wenatchee, sending big black clouds into the air over the city. Farther north of town, scorched hillsides showed where the flames were stopped just short of irrigated apple orchards and residential subdivisions.
Officials know the fire started in brush on the edge of town, but they are still trying to determine what sparked it. Sweltering heat above 100 degrees, tinder-dry brush and strong winds helped fuel it.
Last month, Inslee declared a statewide drought emergency.
State Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark has banned all outdoor fires on state land protected by the Natural Resources department, and campfires have been banned at state parks and on state-controlled ocean beaches.
Railroad traffic in the area has been shut down, including freight lines and Amtrak’s daily Chicago-to-Seattle route, BNSF Railway spokesman Gus Melonas said.
The railroad helped battle the blaze by spraying water from tank cars and transferring water to firefighting trucks, he said.
Hilda Emerson, 37, was among the people who fled the flames Sunday.
"I went and grabbed what I could — my computers, irreplaceable stuff, toys for my daughter — and I left," she said. "I never had to do this before."
She and her 4-year-old daughter, Nissa, spent the night on cots set up by the Red Cross in the gymnasium of Eastmont High School in East Wenatchee. She planned to check on her home later in the day.
Associated Press writers Bob Seavey and Courtney Bonnell in Phoenix and Chris Grygiel and Gene Johnson in Seattle contributed to this report.