Giant brush fire in Washington State burns rural homes

Thursday, June 29th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

RICHLAND, WA – A 150,000-acre wildfire was burning Thursday morning on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, including a 10-15 mile “wall of fire” that was advancing toward civilization in Benton County. Flames destroyed at least 36 buildings, mostly homes and barns, and one man was badly burned.

Emergency officials evacuated nearly 4,000 people from the southeastern Washington communities of Benton City and West Richland, and non-essential workers at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation were asked to stay home Thursday.

The fire doubled in size and jumped the Yakima River late Wednesday, leading to the chaotic evacuations. High winds have fueled the blaze, which, at one point, spread 20 miles in only 90 minutes Wednesday.

"It looks like the sky is on fire. It looks like hell. It's scary," said Betty Upington of Richland, where some people were also asked to evacuate.

Most of the burned homes were in the Benton City area, just south of the Hanford nuclear reservation.

"It's like a ghost town," said Amanda Meredith, 20, of Benton City. "I believe my house is already burned down."

Dale Brunson of Benton County Emergency Services said at least 25 homes had burned.

Robert Pierce, 46, of Benton City, was badly burned Wednesday night and was being treated at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. He was reported to be in critical condition Thursday morning with burns on his arms and back over 25 percent of his body.

Ten people were also treated for smoke inhalation.

The fire grew quickly to cover 150 square miles, fueled by 100-degree temperatures and winds gusting to 30 mph.

The flames overwhelmed about 350 firefighters Wednesday. About 600 more from all over the region were expected Thursday. Airplanes and helicopters from the Federal Emergency Management Agency were also due to arrive.

State of emergency
Washington Gov. Gary Locke declared a state of emergency in Benton County and activated the National Guard to assist in the evacuations.

“Hopefully, we will not have to call upon them,” Jim Schoonover, Disaster Manager, said on KING 5 morning news. “If we do, they’ll be used for such things as traffic control, and, perhaps, security, if we have to do any evacuations.”

Firefighters were hoping to take advantage of favorable weather conditions, and squelch as many of the flames as possible in the morning hours.

“Hopefully, if they tackle this fire, we won’t have to evacuate any more,” Schoonover said.

The Red Cross set up emergency shelters at Richland High School and Southridge High School in nearby Kennewick to accept evacuees. Most of the hotels in Kennewick also opened up their rooms for free, Schoonover said.

“Hopefully, we can get (the evacuees) in their homes rather quickly,” he added.

Danger at Hanford
The fire for a time threatened buildings on the Hanford reservation, a former nuclear weapons production site that contains the nation's largest volume of nuclear waste.

The offices of President Clinton and Energy Secretary Bill Richardson were informed of the fire and have offered any federal assistance needed, said Keith Klein, manager of the U.S. Department of Energy's Hanford site.

"There are no known radiological releases as a result of the fire at this time," Klein said Wednesday night.

Earlier Wednesday, the flames crossed Washington 240 in three places, pushing into the 200 West Area of Hanford, where waste is stored from the production of plutonium.

That prompted the DOE, which owns the Hanford site, to declare an emergency. The highway, which crosses the reservation, was closed.

Washington 24 was closed at the junction with Washington 240, state transportation spokeswoman Clarissa Lundeen said. Also closed were Washington 224 and 225 in Benton City and the Vernita Bridge over the Columbia River.

On the Hanford reservation, the fire burned in the vicinity of the 222 S Building, an analytical laboratory containing some nuclear waste, and a mile from the Central Waste Complex, where solid wastes are stored.

"All Hanford facilities are in safe status," said Michael Minette of the Hanford Joint Information Center.

About 1,700 people who worked at the 200 West Area were sent home Wednesday or told not to report for work.

The 200 West Area contains some of the huge underground tanks that contain Hanford's most dangerous radioactive wastes. None of those tanks was threatened, Minette said.

But an anti-nuclear group warned that the fire could burn radioactive soils and spew contaminated particles into the air.

"We urge state officials to independently monitor to protect the public and firefighters from the hazards of airborne radioactive contaminated particles," said Gerald Pollet, director of Heart of America Northwest.

Earlier this month, the federal government warned that radioactive-contaminated soil from the Los Alamos National Laboratory could flush into the Rio Grande River after a fire raced through the New Mexico site.

The fire began Tuesday in dry grass along the shoulder of Washington 24 when a car slammed head-on into a tractor-trailer rig near the west gate to Hanford, the Washington State Patrol said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.