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Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Wildfire scorches 5,000 acres near Finley

Mid Columbia News:
Wildfire scorches 5,000 acres near Finley
Flames coursed through about 5,000 acres of dry, yellow cheatgrass and sagebrush south of Finley on Sunday

Published Monday, July 30th, 2007
By Andrew Sirocchi, Herald staff writer


Flames coursed through about 5,000 acres of dry, yellow cheatgrass and sagebrush south of Finley on Sunday, sending columns of dirty gray and black smoke billowing into blue skies.

By early evening with the fire about 30 percent to 40 percent contained, 75 regional firefighters were making a concerted push to hold the blaze south of a command center set up off an unimproved road next to Highway 397.

The blaze, which had burned since about 9 a.m., had not threatened any structures or caused any injuries.

But as the flames moved north, officials worried the blaze was making its way closer to a row of orchards and homes.

"Our objective now is trying to hold it to Ayers Road," said Kennewick Fire Marshal Mark Yaden. "But that's a challenge right now."

Nearly every agency in Benton, Franklin and Walla Walla counties, as well as Hanford, sent firefighters to join the attack in the desert south of the Tri-Cities.

By early evening, with flames only a few hundred yards from the command center and firefighters tiring from a daylong fight, officials said they had made a request to authorize state mobilization and allow crews from agencies outside the region to respond. But it was unclear when a decision would be reached and local firefighters continued to attack the blaze with all the regional resources they could muster.

Two planes - one from Pendleton and a second from Richland, were dispatched to drop fire retardant chemicals over the blaze.

Water, though, was scarce and being used conservatively.

Benton Fire District 1 officials set up a 3,000-gallon mobile water tank and allowed any agency to pick up loads from the command center. A water tender made repeated trips into Finley to keep the mobile tank stocked.

Ultimately, it was the challenges posed by the terrain - and the difficulties of safely reaching the areas that were burning - that ensured firefighters would have to attack the blaze with fire instead of water.

"The conditions, the wind, the terrain, the access - it's all wrapped into one," said Benton County Fire District 1 Capt. Devin Helland of the difficulties that firefighters were facing. "We're trying to flank it and pinch it off."

Officials believe the fire began in the Wallula Gap near the Columbia River. With the blaze spreading, a cause was not immediately being determined but Yaden said firefighters will investigate whether sparks from a passing train ignited the blaze.

"Early on, there was some mention of a train but that's just speculation now," Yaden said.

While the flames spread steadily throughout the day, it was the intensity of the heat as much as the speed of the fire that was creating problems and making the job more difficult than it otherwise would be.

By mid-afternoon, two bulldozers used to clear brush and fuel from the path of the fire were temporarily put out of commission.

Meanwhile, Yaden said firefighters were tiring and the flames already had jumped several roads where officials had hoped they would be able to hold the lines.

Firefighters Matt Demiter and Jill Berry, of Benton County Fire District 4, returned to the command center covered in soot and sweat with a melted side mirror, boiled paint and a damaged plastic fender on their truck.

The two firefighters initially were deployed off Finley Road to attack the blaze by back burning brush and grass. The terrain, though, created too many hazards and made reaching the flames too difficult to trap the blaze in its earliest stages.

"It was too hard to fight," Demiter said. "With the canyons being so steep, it wasn't safe being in there." Both firefighters were dispatched to the desert blaze directly from Kennewick, where they had helped put out a brush fire near 53rd Avenue. It was a small fire, particularly compared to the desert blaze they would see for the rest of the day south of Finley.

But for many firefighters, it was one more job that made attacking the desert fire even more tiring and difficult with little end in sight.

"It's been a pretty calm fire but there's a lot of work left to be done," Yaden said. "There's a lot of fuel left in the stubble.

Water Trucks and Water Tenders