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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Wildfire prompts evacuations and warnings in Washington State

By Eduardo Medina and Mike Ives

A wildfire in eastern Washington state prompted evacuations and helicopter rescues Friday as authorities raced to contain blazes across the state and in the nearby Canadian province of British Columbia.

The Gray Fire, which began in Washington state around noon Friday, burned through 3,000 acres over a few hours and threatened the communities of Medical Lake and Four Lakes. The areas, less than 20 miles southwest of Spokane, have a combined population of more than 5,000.

A so-called red flag warning, meaning that critical fire conditions were occurring or would soon occur, was scheduled to come into effect at 10 a.m. Saturday for eastern Washington state and northern Idaho, the National Weather Service said.

KHQ, an NBC affiliate in Spokane, reported late Friday that one person had died in connection with the Gray Fire, citing the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office. No other details were available, and police officials could not be reached for comment overnight.

Joe Smillie, a spokesperson for the Washington State Department of Natural Resources, said by telephone Friday that the wildfire had destroyed several structures in Medical Lake. It remained zero percent contained Friday night.

Smillie said the fire, pushed by wind gusts of about 35 mph, was also being fueled by dry grass and wheat fields.

“All Medical Lake citizens, get out now,” Mayor Terri Cooper of Medical Lake said on Facebook. The city later warned that local water was not safe to drink unless it was boiled.

The fire was spreading farther south closer to Cheney, a city of about 13,000 that also houses Eastern Washington University. Smillie said firefighters were trying to reroute the fire or stop its spread.

Photographs posted by the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office on the social platform X, formerly known as Twitter, showed pilots flying near a forest through a sky streaked with fire and smoke.

Washington State’s Department of Natural Resources also warned Friday that strong winds were likely to bring fire that has been burning across the border in the British Columbia Cascades since July into the United States and toward a conservation area. The blaze, the Crater Creek Fire, has burned at least 54,000 acres; the protected land, the Loomis Natural Resources Conservation Area, is nearly half that size.

“We’ve got a long night ahead of us, but please keep yourselves safe,” Hilary Franz, the public lands commissioner in Washington, said on X on Friday night. “And we’ll focus on bringing these fast-moving fires under control.”

In Canada, the western province of British Columbia was under a state of emergency order early Saturday because of dangerous wildfires. Some homes on its suburban fringes of Kelowna, a major resort area, were on fire, and a few were destroyed.

Farther north, most residents of Yellowknife, a city of 20,000 people in the Northwest Territories, had fled before a deadline as a wildfire approached the city limits.

Wildfires are increasing in size and intensity in the western United States, and wildfire seasons are growing longer. Recent research has suggested that heat and dryness associated with global warming are major reasons for the increase in bigger and stronger fires.

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