Growing Wildfire Destroys Structures in Washington Near Columbia River Gorge

July 5, 2023

UNDERWOOD, Wash. (AP) — A weekend wildfire along the Columbia River in southwestern Washington continued growing on Monday to 546 acres (221 hectares), prompting evacuations and burning structures, according to authorities.

Skamania County firefighters responded to reports of the wildfire on Sunday at 11:19 a.m. near Highway 14 in Underwood, an unincorporated community across the river from Hood River, Oregon, and about 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) west of White Salmon, Washington.

Hot, windy conditions caused the Tunnel 5 fire to spread rapidly in what authorities called extreme terrain through Sunday afternoon. Authorities have issued an evacuation notice for everyone in a 2-mile (3.2-kilometer) radius around Cook Underhill Road, where crews are engaged in active firefighting. A shelter has been set up at Skamania County Fairgrounds in Stevenson, Washington.

About 1,000 residents have been affected by the fire and evacuation orders, Heather Appelhof, a Southeast Washington Interagency Incident Management Team spokesperson, told The Oregonian/OregonLive on Monday.

The fire’s cause is under investigation, authorities said.

As of Monday morning, 26 engines, 5 hand crews and 19 water tenders – 166 fire personnel total – were engaged with the fire, which is 0% contained.

“Several structures have been lost,” the Skamania County Sheriff’s Office wrote in an update posted to Facebook late Sunday night.

The fire was threatening more than 100 structures as of Sunday afternoon, said Jessa Lewis, a spokesperson for the Washington State Department of Natural Resources. The fire also threatens a fish hatchery and vineyards, according to the Seattle Times.

“We’re treating this fire very aggressively and throwing resources at it to get it under control,” Lewis told the newspaper on Monday.

Firefighters worked Monday afternoon to clear overgrown vegetation and deploy hoses around homes to protect structures, according to a Facebook post by a state team managing firefighting operations.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has authorized the use of federal money as requested by Washington state to help with firefighting costs, after FEMA officials determined the fire threatens to cause destruction that could constitute a major disaster. This is the first such FEMA declaration this year in Washington.

Aircraft are using the Columbia River for water to fight the fire. Authorities are advising recreationalists and boaters in the Columbia River to use extreme caution and avoid the areas where aircraft are dipping in the river.

Highway 14 is closed between mile markers 53 and 63.

A boil order has been issued in Underwood because of a loss of pressure in the water system that may lead to contamination.

The city of Hood River on Monday canceled its July 4 fireworks show out of respect to the families who have lost their homes to the fire.

“This is supposed to be a community event and something just doesn’t feel right when a big part of the community is suffering right now and enduring so much loss,” Brett Stomps, the president of the nonprofit that hosts the event, said in a Facebook post.

The National Weather Service has issued a Red Flag Warning, meaning fires can spark and grow very quickly, for Skamania and surrounding counties, effective until 11 p.m. Wednesday.

In Washington, which last year enjoyed one of its mildest wildfire seasons in a decade, officials are putting residents on alert as they brace for what could be one of its busiest.

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