Easing winds help crews hold wildfire that scorched 10 square miles in central Washington

Light winds helped firefighters gain ground Monday on a wildfire that has burned nearly 10 square miles of dry grass and sagebrush in central Washington, as investigators examined how three firefighters were injured fleeing their truck in the flames.

The firefighters had driven down a driveway to protect a home that was threatened, but the fire came up too quickly and they were unable to turn around, said Christy Boisselle, a spokeswoman for West Valley Fire and Rescue. They escaped with minor injuries after the blaze jumped the dusty dirt road, where the remnants of the scorched truck remained.

By Monday evening, the fire that started Sunday was about 35 percent contained, Boisselle said.

If winds continue to be mild, "We'll be sitting good," she said, adding that about 250-275 people have been assigned to the fire.

Fire officials earlier said the blaze burned 10,000 acres, but downgraded that number to 6,200 acres later Monday after mapping it.

It started about 10 miles west of downtown Yakima, an agricultural hub known for fruit trees, wine grapes and hops for beer. The area around the fire is comprised of orchards, old farm houses, and recently built homes.

Fire officials have confirmed that flames destroyed two outbuildings and damaged what they called a vacant structure, as well as damaging fences, pumphouses and fruit trees, Boisselle said.

Officials were investigating the cause of the fire.

Steve Carlson, a cherry and apple grower, watched the flames consume a vacant home next door as he worked to protect his own. The neighbor died several years ago, he said.

"The smoke was just so intense, and then the flames came," he said, pointing to the burned land that stretches to the edges of his grassy lawn. Flames singed apple trees on the edges of his orchard.

Carlson had just picked his cherries on Friday.

Living in an arid, rural area, Carlson said he and his family had prepared for a wildfire by planting green grass around the home, installing a sprinkler system and rock wall, and putting a steel roof on the barn.

"You always fear someday this is going to happen, but I guess what we did worked," he said, crediting crews on the ground and in the air with saving his home.

Mike Willette, a neighbor across the hill, lost two vintage Harley Davidson motorcycles and several bicycles in a storage shed. His home survived unscathed.

"We were watching the fire all day over the ridge, but I thought the smoke was pouring toward town," he said. "Then a little later, the fire just came racing down that hill. It happened so fast."

Many of the fire crews that responded when the blaze broke out were paid volunteers. The three who fled their truck suffered a twisted ankle, smoke inhalation, cuts, and minor burns. They were treated and released from a hospital Sunday evening.

They declined to give their names. A straw hat covered the burned, blistered ears of one firefighter, protecting them from the sun as he walked the area Monday.

"We're just glad to be alive," he said to the others.