by: Terra Sullivan Updated:
KITTITAS COUNTY, Wash. - Kittitas and Yakima counties declared a state of emergency Tuesday as officials continued to monitor a growing wildfire burning just east of Cle Elum.
Gusty winds and hot conditions have continued to feed the fast-moving blaze, which, as of Tuesday evening, had exploded to roughly 44 square miles -- half the size of Seattle.
The fire, known as the Taylor Bridge wildfire, is believed to have started at the Taylor Bridge during replacement construction on Monday afternoon.
About 400 people have been forced from their homes, and 70 have burned so far.
Information on help and relief for fire victims: www.kirotv.com/news/news/info-help-and-relief-taylor-bridge-fire-victims/nRBQ9/
The area where the fire is burning is also home to many livestock animals and wildlife. KIRO 7 crews caught video of people rescuing horses from ranches close to the flames, and part of a local chimpanzee sanctuary was burned, but according to updates Chimpanzee Rescue Northwest posted online, the chimps are doing OK.
The Department of Natural Resources, which is overseeing the fire response, said there have been no injuries thus far.
DNR Fire Incident Commander Rex Reed said the state of emergency declarations would give the county assistance from the National Guard, namely heavy choppers that will drop large bucketfuls of water on the flames.
Officials are concerned that wind will push the fire across some big natural firebreaks, spreading it even further. Reed said the area was under extreme fire conditions with temperatures in the 90s and wind gusts of up to 30 mph.
About 600 firefighters are battling the wildfire, which is at zero percent containment.
Residents on edge
Wind whipped up flames so quickly, trees have gone up like dry twigs.
A KIRO 7 crew watched as one house in the middle of the firestorm caught fire and burned. Deer also leapt out of harm's way.
Melvin Roghair came to Central Washington from South Dakota to visit his son. On Monday, flames threatened to destroy his son's home.
"The sparks were going on the hay, but we saved it," he said. "Over here, it was 50 feet."
For people in Elk Heights, the danger was still present.
All day, helicopters scooped up water from the Yakima River and dropped it onto the fire.
Some homes were untouched while others, just hundreds of yards away, were destroyed.
Officials at Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest feared that fate might befall them moments after the fire started Monday.
"I just feel so fortunate that the fire went all around us but didn't hit the chimp building," sanctuary worker Sarah Beckler said.
Taylor Bridge fire is latest in series of western blazes
The Taylor Bridge fire is just the latest in a swath of wildfires in the west.
A firefighter died Sunday in Idaho when a tree fell on her.
In Oregon, a firefighter suffered burns Sunday when scorching winds swirled around her. She had to use her emergency fire shelter to survive.
In Northern California, an aggressive fire has burned 9 square miles since Sunday.