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Yakama Nation Wildfire Ravages Homes, Destroys Irreplaceable Objects

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Up to 50 people had to flee their homes on February 12 when a massive wind-fueled wildfire erupted on the Yakama Reservation in southwest Washington. Two firefighters sustained minor injuries.

The fire consumed 20 homes in White Swan, a community of 3,200 that is 21 miles west of Toppenish, the tribal seat. The winds took down trees and power lines, cutting off power to much of the area.

Although no lives were lost, most of the affected residents are traditional Yakama tribal members, and many lost irreplaceable possessions, including traditional, ceremonial regalia and family heirlooms such as centuries-old baskets.

“We didn’t even have time to save our family pictures,” one displaced person told tribal member Caryl Spencer.

The fire started in a chimney, according to Yakima County Fire District 5, which received the chimney-fire report at 1:37 p.m. Flames quickly spread as 74-mph wind gusts carried embers to surrounding sagebrush, then to homes.

Harry Smiskin, Chairman of the Yakama Nation, drove directly into the billowing smoke to offer assistance. Smiskin declared a state of emergency as the heavy smoke engulfed the community. Winds were so strong that water from the fire hoses was blown away before it could reach the blaze.

Members of surrounding communities are assisting the homeless families, Smiskin said, adding that affected families could seek refuge at the White Swan Community Center, the Toppenish Creek Longhouse and Harrah Elementary School.

The Yakima Chapter of the Red Cross housed residents at a school, while Red Cross volunteers ensured that all displaced residents had places to stay, spokesperson Stephanie Hakala said. “Now they are working with local food banks to ensure we have a full food supply.”

Spencer was shopping in nearby Yakima City when she saw the smoke billowing over the foothills. She said the fire narrowly missed the gas station across from the destroyed post office.

The fire was contained February 13, though a log stack at the Jeld Wen wood-chipping plant was left to burn itself out, Yakima Fire District 5 Captain Dave Martin said.

Residents were allowed to return home late February 13, though cleanup operations were expected to last several days.