WHITE SALMON, Wash. – A wildfire continued to burn out of control overnight Thursday just north of here, forcing dozens to evacuate their homes but also driving neighbors to band together to protect each other and their property.
So far no buildings have been damaged or people have been hurt, but the fire worked its way down a hillside near Highway 141 during the day. About 455 firefighters are battling the fire that has consumed over 1,200 acres.
Originally, the acreage was over 1,500 but fire officials said better mapping showed a smaller area burned. Over 40 homes have been evacuated.
By nightfall, officials said the fire was 10 percent contained and they were letting the fire burn toward fire lines. Two fires merged and crews are now calling the blaze the "Highway 141 Fire."
Four separate fires were reported at about 1:30 p.m. Wednesday. Firefighters quickly extinguished two of them, but the remaining two combined into the blaze firefighters are now fighting.
Kevin Cutburth wasn’t taking any chances as he watered down his property Thursday in the hope that if the flames approached his home, the wet buffer would keep them at bay.
He packed his bags too as he watched the smoke and flames move down the hillside, closer and closer to his home.
"I think it's going to come down here and start burning people's backyards and everything else. It's scary," he said.
It's not just his home or his neighbors' he's worried about – they aren't being told to evacuate just yet – but it's other parts of his family who live up on the hill that are part of the 400 homes under a recommended evacuation. They have yet to leave.
"We’'ll force them out of there," he said if fire officials boost the evacuation level to 3. “We’ll go up there and grab their hands and make sure they walk out.”
Nearby, Cheryl Park didn’t plan on evacuating anytime soon, but her bags were packed just in case. Flames she saw near her property Wednesday night were a wake-up call.
“Every time it hit a tree that was pretty dry, it just flared and went up like a rocket,” she said.
Anita Johnston said she was ready to go when fire crews told her to evacuate.
"The smoke kept coming in the windows," Johnston said. "In fact, last night, my eyes were really kind of hurting."
Homes on Indian Creek Road in White Salmon have been added to the evacuation alert list, firefighters said.
Neighbors also helped out friends in need. Michelle Richards brought her trailer to the Trout family home to assist them in moving their horses. She said others living nearby also called in to lend assistance.
Richards said the Trout family told her that "neighborly support is unbelievable."
On Wednesday, Christie Gensler watched the fire creep toward her backdoor as it came within 150 feet of her home.
"It was actually on my property, and it was really time to leave," she said. "The firefighters saved it. The helicopter came in and took water out of the pond – actually put the fire out that was on the property."
Josh Billette and his family disregarded the initial order to leave his home, preferring instead to stand guard.
Billette said if the fire gets too close he'd probably send his family away and do what he could to save his house.
Schools opened at their regular time in the White Salmon area Thursday morning. There are also no school closures or changes to bus routes Friday. According to the school district, if conditions change, school officials will make a decision around 6 a.m.
Fire crews had an unexpected ally in fighting the wildfire. The usual winds that rip through the Columbia River Gorge appeared to be on vacation. The winds were still light Thursday afternoon.
According to KATU Meteorologist Joe Raineri, the winds will not be the major factor over the next couple of days, but the heat could be. Temperatures are expected to be in the low 90s Friday afternoon, he said, and the humidity is expected to drop, making an already dry situation potentially worse.
But there is some good news as there is a chance of some light rain in the next couple of days.
The cause of the fire continues to be under investigation, but it started along Highway 141. According to the Forest Service, it could have been something as simple as chains from a truck hitting the dry brush along the roadside.
There is a public meeting scheduled for 10 a.m. Saturday at Columbia High School.
Watch a timelapse of the fire from about 3 p.m. to dark Wednesday shot by Crispin Young.