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Broughton Fire levels six homes

A fast moving fire that started on the edge of the former Broughton Mill site west of Underwood on Thursday destroyed six houses before it could be doused.

The Broughton Fire, which took off a bit after 11 a.m., went up the bluff, leveling any structure in its path.

Five of the homes that burned were on the bluff, and the other was directly north of State Route 14.

Stan Hinatsu, fire information officer for the U.S. Forest Service's Hood River office, delivered the tragic news on Thursday afternoon.

"We have confirmed six homes lost," Hinatsu said. "Five on top of the Broughton Bluff, and one on Highway 14."

Four of the five bluff-top homes that were destroyed were on Gosnell Road, a bit southwest of the community of Underwood. The other home, at 11492 Cook-Underwood Road, was owned by Tad McGeer.

"The first time I saw smoke was a little after 11 a.m.," McGeer recalled. "I called 9-1-1, but there wasn't much information. Then, getting near noon, a deputy came to the house and said I might think about putting things in boxes. Twenty minutes after that I was heading out the driveway."

McGeer, who had lived in the house since 1994, said he got his laptop computer, some papers, and his dogs, but didn't have time to get much more.

"I didn't get my passport or my birth certificate," he said. "These days, the first thing you have to grab is your computer. I work out of my house, and a lot of my work on the laptop is critical. The computer has a very concentrated set of information, including financial records and pictures."

A total of 138 acres burned.

Dozens of residents had to be evacuated as the flames raced up the bluff. Skamania County Sheriff's Office deputies were going door to door to warn people they needed to get out.

Crews from a multitude of jurisdictions responded to help battle the blaze, which was being pushed by 30 mile an hour winds over the steep and rocky terrain.

At the peak of the fire suppression effort on Thursday and Friday, there were 300 firefighters -- including those working in the air -- battling the fire.

Hinatsu said there were two air tankers on the scene on Thursday, but they were unable to make their drops.

"It was too windy for them to put down any retardant," Hinatsu explained. "It wouldn't have been effective."

Two Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) helicopters were on the scene Thursday. By Friday morning, three helicopters were working at the same time; dipping their buckets or hoses into the Columbia River, then lifting off and dumping the water onto the fire.

In all, a total of four helicopters helped battle the fire -- three from the DNR, and one contract ship.

To help handle the crisis, Gov. Christine Gregoire initiated the State Fire Service Mobilization Plan, allowing resources -- personnel and equipment -- from around the state to be dispatched to the Underwood area.

As part of this mobilization effort, firefighting teams from Clark County, Cowlitz County, and Grant County were among those on the scene.

Underwood resident Amy Kasenga was one of the evacuees.

"We were evacuated early on Thursday," Kasenga said. "We probably could have returned that night, but chose not to for fear of the unknown. We didn't know what to expect of the smoke, and it was much easier leaving during the daylight with the girls than in the middle of the night."

Animals were also at risk from the fire. Underwood Alpacas, a ranch along Cook-Underwood Road, had to evacuate 13 alpacas as the fire got closer.

"It was very scary for the animals, with the helicopters and the heavy smoke," said Rita White, co-owner of the alpaca ranch.

White said people from all around came to help, and no animals were harmed.

"Everybody dropped everything and got here to hook up trailers and take animals out," she explained. "It was almost worth it to see how amazing people are."

White Salmon resident Janet Holen, a volunteer with the American Red Cross, helped set up an emergency shelter at the Mill A School.

Holen said the location of the shelter was at first going to be the Underwood Community Center, but conditions forced it to be moved.

"It was very smoky, and the fire was headed in that direction. There were big chunks of black flying around in the air, and they were concerned the shelter would get caught in it," Holen explained.

Holen said a decision was made at about 2 p.m. Thursday to move the shelter to Mill A. The evacuees could not go via Cook-Underwood Road, because there was fire on both sides of the road, so they had to get to Mill A via SR 14.

The fire was not declared 100 percent contained until Sunday evening. As of Monday, a 20-person DNR crew, with a water-bucket equipped helicopter, remained on the scene in the event the fire kicked up again.

"There is still some potential for a re-burn," Hinatsu pointed out. "The crew will be there a few more days, and we'll see what happens."

The wildfire began in dry grass along the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway (BNSF) tracks. Although an official cause of the fire has not yet been determined, the railroad had operated a rail grinding train through the area on the morning of the fire.

Gus Melonas, a BNSF spokesperson in Seattle, said officials were investigating the fire.

"The cause is under investigation," Melonas said. "We will not speculate. We have not determined the cause at this point."

Melonas said that when rail grinding operations are under way, fire safety is a chief concern.

"Our policy is, we spray the area down before grinding and afterwards," he explained. He added that a crew went through the area about a half-hour after the grinding and there was no sign of fire or smoke.

"The official investigation needs to run its course. Rumors and speculation are just that until the final cause is determined," Hinatsu said.

Rail traffic was shut down at 11:30 a.m., and trains did not move through the area again until about 4 p.m. Motorists on State Route 14, meanwhile, were subject to lengthy delays. The winds were pushing northeast, however, and that kept most of the smoke from enveloping the highway.

One of the side-effects of the firefighting effort was that area residents served by the Underwood Water System were under a "boil water order." The Skamania County Public Utility District issued the order on Friday.

"The Underwood Water System is pumping water into the system but it is being used for the firefighting effort faster than we can recover," read the PUD order.

With firefighters spraying water faster than it could be delivered, the water system lost pressure.

"The pressure loss could potentially allow contaminants to enter the water system," read an advisory from the Washington Department of Health.

As of Sept. 25, the boil water alert for customers in the Underwood area was still on, but Skamania PUD officials were hopeful it would be lifted soon.

Holen said she was impressed by the helping hands residents extended to those who had been evacuated from the fire zone.

"Many people came to the shelter and offered their homes," Holen said.

McGeer, who is now staying with friends in White Salmon, said the experience makes him feel even more thankful for the community he lives in.

"When something like this happens, people really step up and offer help and encouragement," McGeer said. "It's very heartwarming."


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