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Fire Crews Hope to Begin Containing Massive Wildfire

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Stock Fire Image (PEDRO ARMESTRE/AFP/GettyImages)

Stock Fire Image (PEDRO ARMESTRE/AFP/GettyImages)

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CLE ELUM, Wash. (AP) — Hundreds of firefighters employed every weapon they had Wednesday to battle a stubborn wildfire east of the Cascades that has destroyed dozens of homes across roughly 35 square miles.

Helicopters made regular drops of water on hot spots. Firefighters dug lines with hand tools and bulldozers and cleared wood piles and dry brush from around homes to protect them.

And at the fire’s troublesome north flank, where massive plumes of smoke soared skyward, heavy tankers repeatedly dropped retardant on thick stands of ponderosa pine and Douglas fir — some of the heavy timber that fire crews had hoped to keep the Taylor Bridge Fire from reaching.

New evacuations were ordered Wednesday evening on the north flank, fire spokesman Glenn Kohler said. He didn’t know how many people were affected. Hundreds have already left their homes.

Retirees Dave and Jan Stambaugh eyed the massive fire behind their home warily Wednesday, as they loaded treasured artwork into their cars.

The home sits on a rural lane in a meadow just below flaming forested hills.

“It’s one thing about the house, but my yard, oh my garden,” Stambaugh said, pointing to her lush new landscaping with ponds, shrubs, stepping stones and a putting green. “Do you think it’ll make it?”

Next door, 81-year-old Joanne Blanchard wondered the same thing after stuffing her trunk with photo albums.

Minutes later, sheriff’s deputies began knocking on doors to notify residents it was time to flee. Blanchard’s daughter came up the street from her own home to make sure her parents were ready to go. Others quickly finished filling up campers with prized possessions.

“I think the houses are fine, because we’ve got open space all around here,” said Eric Wulf, as he began loading up six horses to evacuate. “It’s just a pain more than anything else.”

In better news, fire management officials said the fire is now 25 percent contained, up from 10 percent.

Since Monday, the fire has burned across more than 22,000 acres of tinder-dry grass, sagebrush and timber in rural areas east of Cle Elum, about 75 miles east of Seattle.

More than 800 people are working to suppress the blaze. Kohler said one firefighter suffered a minor facial burn.

Authorities say at least 60 primary residences have been destroyed, but conditions are still too dangerous to come up with an exact count.

The acreage estimate was down from earlier estimates of about 28,000 acres, due to more accurate mapping, according to incident commander Rex Reed. Reed also said conditions were still too dangerous to get an exact count on the number of homes burned, but confirmed at least 60 homes had been destroyed.

The Kittitas County sheriff also has said that at least 10 additional homes had burned in a subdivision on the southeast corner of the blaze.

“Frankly it’s not safe yet to get to the interior of the fire,” Reed said.

Gov. Chris Gregoire declared a state of emergency for Kittitas and Yakima counties in response to the blaze. That provided air support from the Washington National Guard.

Fire crews also were keeping a wary eye on weather conditions later in the week, with hotter, drier conditions expected Thursday and Friday.

Meanwhile, a brush fire not far from Grand Coulee Dam in Eastern Washington has burned nearly 8 square miles and an old barn outside of Elmer City.

Cathy Moses of the Colville Tribe said the fire was threatening nine homes in the town near Grand Coulee Dam. The fire broke out Tuesday evening and has closed Highway 155 near Elmer City.

– Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

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