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Washington state wildfire burns 64 buildings

More than 200 residents of tinder-dry forests near Washington state's Satus Pass crowded a high school gymnasium Friday night to get an update on a wildfire that has burned 64 buildings.

Hundreds of people in the south-central part of the state have been evacuated. Several of those at the meeting talked about losing their homes.

Monte Isaacs complained that he saw firefighters in the area who said they were there to protect buildings but he was there too and watched his home burn. He spent 20 years building his two-story cabin out of salvage lumber "and now it's all gone."

"I'm 61 years old," he said. "I'm not a young man. I don't know where to start over. I don't know if I can."

Fire incident commander Dave LaFave said crews were using GPS coordinates to try and determine how many of the burned structures identified in an aerial view were homes and how many were outbuildings.

Firefighters gained some ground Friday and the fire about 20 miles north of the Columbia River was 20 percent contained. More accurate mapping reduced the fire's overall size to 4,215 acres, or more than 6 square miles.

Though winds were light, conditions were far from ideal for firefighters on the lines, with high temperatures in the 90s, low humidity and terrain that ranged from flat lands of dry grasses to steep canyons with thick stands of Ponderosa pines.

George Dempsey, 68, was among those evacuated. He knew his home was still safe but waited out word on the fire earlier Friday from a Red Cross shelter at the Klickitat County Fairgrounds. Now staying in a camper van there, Dempsey has lived in the area for 10 years, and the fire marked his first in the region.

"I'm feeling confident. I'm not worried at all about my place," he said, then smiled and held up two fingers about an inch apart. "Maybe a little bit."

Nationally, wildfires in other parts of the country have gained more attention in recent weeks. Fires have devoured hundreds of homes in drought-plagued Texas and several large fires continue to burn just to the south in Oregon.

Washington is experiencing an especially late start to its fire season following a winter with heavy snows and a cool spring, but warm, dry weather is forecast to continue at least through the weekend. The National Weather Service said a high-pressure system over the Northwest should last a few days, with cooler temperatures returning later Monday.

The fire started Wednesday along U.S. Highway 97 across the street from a Greek Orthodox monastery. The 19 nuns and employees who operate a well-known bakery there saw flames and immediately ran outside with water, rakes and rags to try to beat back the fire. The buildings at the monastery were saved, fire officials said, but the fire grew quickly from there.

A fire incident commander earlier described the fire to evacuees as "a greased pig rodeo," blown first in one direction, then another by shifting winds.

Traffic on Highway 97 has been closed intermittently by smoke and fire. There have been no reports of any injuries.

Ramon Dotson, 37, moved to the area just eight months ago and was evacuated from his home Wednesday evening, shortly after he saw propane tanks at other homes explode in the distance. He said he remains hopeful that the winds won't kick up the fire, but he's also sorry for those who already lost everything.

"It's such a sorry time for them," Dotson said. "I have so much sympathy."

Gov. Chris Gregoire met Thursday night with about 50 of the displaced residents. She assured them that the state would do everything it can to protect their homes and property despite a budget crunch.

"The thing I want people to know when they're evacuated from their homes is we are not going to be cheap about protecting their property," Gregoire said.