The Tunnel 5 wildfire that sparked Sunday in Skamania County had grown to more than 500 acres by Tuesday morning, burning at least 10 homes and stirring evacuation orders for around 1,000 people.
It’s not yet clear what caused the fire along the Columbia River Gorge, but fire officials said it started around 11:19 a.m. Sunday near several homes. Witnesses began calling the Skamania County Sheriff’s Office, which sent electronic alerts and went door-to-door to neighboring homes.
Fire officials said in an interview Monday that the blaze started “adjacent” to multiple houses.
“Just due to the location of it, and the proximity of structures and houses, is why of course it did go to (evacuation) pretty quickly,” said Heather Appelhof, a spokesperson for the patchwork of government agencies working to extinguish the fire.
Officials estimated about ten homes have been destroyed and 250 more are in danger, according to a public database run by the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center, which quarterbacks firefighting efforts in the region. Fifteen businesses and dozens more other structures are also close to the flames.
Four helicopters flew in Monday morning to help, Appelhof said, dumping water from the nearby Columbia River. In nearby waters of the same river, scores of people swam and enjoyed water sports to celebrate the Fourth of July.
“It’s a very popular area and when we have our aircraft out there trying to dip water, too, that’s another challenge that we’re looking at,” she said. “It just ups the complexity.”
The fire also triggered evacuations for about 70 Girl Scouts and troop leaders at Camp Arrowhead, near the town of Stevenson. The scouts were celebrating the first overnight camping trip of the summer, as well as Camp Arrowhead’s 75th anniversary.
“This is not the start to summer that our campers or our staff wanted, but it’s really important to us that safety comes first. We didn’t hesitate to make sure that we were taking the right steps to keep our campers safe,” said Sarah Shipe, the spokesperson for Girl Scouts of Oregon and Southwest Washington.
Shipe said the Girl Scout members and organizers relocated to the organization’s Portland Service Center, where members were able to meet with their families. Shipe said all Girl Scout members had been reunited with their families by Monday evening.
Boots-on-the-ground firefighters focused much of their efforts Monday on defending structures. Crews were dispatched from around the Washington town of Carson. Support staff spent much of the day transforming a local middle school into a command center and base camp.
The fire is burning on steep terrain, fueled by dry brush and timber. Appelhof described it as a challenging fire. With forecasts spelling out a hot week, she said, it’s expected to continue growing.
April Ehrlich contributed to this story.