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Busy Sunday: Authorities Deal With Derailment, Fire

Wishram on edge of evacuation

Sunday, July 13, started out as just another peaceful day in Klickitat County, but after a quiet morning, the floodgates of trouble opened wide in the afternoon.

At 1:38 p.m., a westbound Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway (BNSF) freight train derailed at Avery, just west of Wishram. One of the derailed cars dumped its load of woodchips, blocking the access road to the boat ramp.

Apparently, sparks from the derailment ignited dry grass alongside the tracks, and, pushed by winds blowing east, the fire took off toward Wishram.

Klickitat County Sheriff Chris Mace said he got the call about the derailment while he was in Goldendale, and headed to Wishram to assist.

"When I got there, here's this big cloud of smoke, and I said to myself, `oh please be on the other side of the river,'" Mace said. "They called me about the derailment, but no one told me there was a fire."

Mace said the situation was a potentially dangerous one.

"We were preparing for the possible evacuation of Wishram," Mace explained. "We warned the residents to prepare, and the residents were very cooperative and helpful."

Before that step was necessary, however, the weather gave firefighters a break.

"The winds kind of died down, and the firefighters worked hard to get it stopped," Mace said. "The fire went all the way to Wishram Heights, but never crossed Highway 14. It was not as bad as it certainly could have been."

Before the flames were doused, approximately 900 acres had burned.

The Washington State Patrol closed the highway for about two hours on Sunday due to heavy smoke and to protect fire crews working in the area.

Gus Melonas, regional director of community and media relations for BNSF, said the cause of the train derailment was still under investigation.

"Thirteen cars of a westbound train carrying general freight derailed: one empty, and 12 loads," Melonas said. "About 700 feet of damaged track had to be replaced."

Melonas said two of the loaded cars that went over carried woodchips, and the rest carried barley and wheat. There were no injuries to railroad crew members.

Passengers on Sunday evening's Amtrak train between Portland and Chicago, which runs via Wishram, were bussed around the derailment site.

The track was reopened at 12:15 p.m. on Monday, July 14.

Ironically, Melonas -- who is based in Seattle -- had been in Wishram on July 7 to welcome Great Northern steam locomotive No. 2507 back to the community. The historic locomotive, the focus of tourism development objectives in Wishram for many months, had been refurbished and hauled to the town at substantial expense and effort, a project Melonas was heavily involved with. So when Melonas heard about the derailment and the fire near Wishram, he also worried about possible damage to No. 2507.

"That was the first thing I thought of," Melonas said.

Mace said no structures were lost in the fire, and there were no serious injuries. One elderly citizen from Wishram was treated for smoke inhalation and released.

The fire was knocked out by about 7 p.m., although crews remained overnight to watch for possible flare-ups.

According to the KCSO report, the Wishram Fire Department was assisted by crews from at least six other fire agencies that responded to help battle the blaze.

With deputies from KCSO helping in the Wishram area, officers from the Bingen-White Salmon Police Department were on standby to assist on calls elsewhere in the west end of the county.

"Bless their hearts, the Bingen-White Salmon Police Department assisted a deputy on an assault call in Lyle," Mace said. "All of our other deputies were tied up on the fire and derailment."

At least half a dozen deputies, including reserves, were called out for the emergency in Wishram, and several WSP troopers were also on the scene.

"It was a great effort by everybody," Mace said. "It was nice to see the fire departments working together. It was real busy for the dispatch center. The funny thing is, everything was dead quiet until 1:30. Then the gates went open."

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