Thursday, October 17, 1991 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Spokane Firestorm -- 2 Killed, 100 Homes Destroyed As Flames Sweep Wide Region

A Spokane woman died trying to flee her burning neighborhood and an Idaho man was killed yesterday as fires whipped by fierce winds and fed by bone-dry conditions destroyed more than 100 homes in Eastern Washington and Western Idaho.

Fire officials hoped calm weather today would help 2,000 firefighters get the upper hand on at least two dozen separate fires that have blackened more than 40,000 acres in five Eastern Washington counties.

Many of the fires were started when power lines were knocked down by high wind and falling trees.

The body of Katherine Conyers, 29, was found by her husband about midnight in the Nine Mile Falls area northwest of Spokane, according to the Spokane County Sheriff's Department.

Conyers, apparently home alone during the fires, attempted to flee as flames swept through the area. Sheriff deputies said the driveway was blocked by fallen trees, so the woman fled on foot through a wooded area adjacent to the home, which was engulfed by fire.

A sheriff's deputy said reports that other Spokane residents may have died in the fires could not be confirmed and were based on word that some people who called in and reported their homes burning could not be located last night.

Earlier yesterday, an Idaho man died during firefighting efforts in Kootenai County, Idaho, where at least five homes were destroyed.

Officials said Joseph Upchurch, 26, a construction-company employee, was operating a front-end loader that overturned and crushed him.

The hardest-hit area was Chattaroy Hills, 13 miles north of Spokane, where fire swept through in a matter of minutes, destroying 65 homes, including several dozen mobile homes.

"When we pulled out and looked back, it was nothing but a red blaze," said Linda Lukenbill. This morning, she stood sobbing as her son, Derek, and two friends poked through the remains of the mobile home they'd occupied for five years.

"At least we have this," she said, holding out cupped hands to show partially melted family wedding rings and a silver locket containing the pictures of her children. "It won't open. I think it's soldered shut from the heat. But at least I have it," she said.

"We were the last ones out. We saw two small spot fires, and it grew in seconds to be too big to fight." She said she was afraid a nearby oil tank would explode.

Rande Kummer, a volunteer firefighter with Spokane County Fire District 4, said the same fire spread about six miles to the east and about the same distance to the west.

"It kinda picked and choosed. You were lucky or you were not lucky," he said. The fire started, he said, when a power line along a ridge blew down.

"We had so many fires, so limited crews, and no equipment," he said. Kummer said as far as he knew, all occupants escaped the burning homes in his district without injury.

But the pain will linger. "We had no insurance. We were talking about it, and then this," said Laurie Mayer.

"We just moved in three weeks ago and all of our stuff was still in boxes," in the rented trailer home. She and her husband, John, were both at work in Spokane when she heard about the fire on the radio yesterday afternoon.

Rob Harper, spokesman for the Department of Natural Resources, said, "This is easily the worst fire situation we've seen in the last half-century in our state, in terms of structural loss."

Gov. Booth Gardner, after flying over some of the affected area today, issued an emergency proclamation authorizing the use of National Guard equipment and personnel.

"It looks like 40 people went out and struck a match to something all at the same time but in different areas," Gardner said.

Fires were burning today in Spokane, Lincoln, Stevens, Ferry and Pend Oreille counties, Harper said. He said calm weather and clear skies today would enable aircraft to fly over the fires to drop water and retardant.

In addition to the homes destroyed, the fires burned dozens of barns, garages and farm buildings, officials said.

The blazes caused an unknown number of power outages in the northeast corner of the state.

"We're in the middle of a firestorm here," said a dispatcher for Spokane Fire District 9 last night. "The whole county is on fire. Every chief, every firefighter, is out the door."

Wind yesterday afternoon and evening was measured consistently at more than 40 mph and one gust was clocked at 62 mph.

A dust storm forced the State Patrol to close 52 miles of Interstate 90 from Moses Lake to Sprague for most of yesterday.

Swirling dust also contributed to a chain-reaction pile-up on Highway 28 near Wilson Creek in Grant County that involved 20 to 25 vehicles. At least three people required hospitalization, said Troy McCallister, a communications officer with the patrol.

State officials have contacted the Federal Emergency Management Agency about federal financial assistance in fighting the fires. Already, the DNR has ordered 3 million acres it either owns or protects in Eastern Washington closed to the public. The order bans all hunting, logging and recreational activities.

"We feel this is a drastic step," said Harper, "but we do not have any more forces to respond to anything over there."

About 15 houses were destroyed in the Ponderosa subdivision southeast of Spokane.

But Sgt. David Wiyrick of the Spokane County Sheriff's Department said residents of the Ponderosa area were being allowed to return this morning. An area school has been opened to give children a place to play and wait during the recovery, he said.

Washington Water Power, the main power company for Eastern Washington, has more than 20 repair crews in the field, but it will be days in some cases before power can be restored, said Wiyrick. Because of fire, authorities evacuated people in and around the small communities of Nine Mile, Chattaroy, Colbert and Newman Lake.

Fire also threatened Hangman Hills, the same subdivision in which flames destroyed 24 homes in July 1987. The neighborhood was evacuated.

Farther west, in Lincoln County, fires roared across about 9,000 acres of countryside near Davenport, Reardan, Harrington and on the eastern banks of the Columbia River a few miles north of Grand Coulee Dam. A subdivision called Hawk Creek near Davenport was evacuated, said Deputy Pat Moore of the Lincoln County Sheriff's Department. A few homes were believed destroyed.

In Ferry County, a blaze in Republic gutted one house and blackened 35 acres. It took firefighters three hours to get it under control.

-- Times staff reporters Joe Haberstroh and Tomas Guillen contributed to this report.

. SPOKANE FIRES. . 1. Nine Mile Falls. 2. Chattaroy. 3. Green Bluff. 4. Randle Holcomb. 5. Temple Road. 6. Ponderosa. 7. Springdale. 8. Wilbur. 9. Eight other fires.

Copyright (c) 1991 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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