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Monday, September 28, 1992 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Wenatchee Sifts Through Ashes -- Apartments, 30 Houses Burn In City's Worst Blaze

Times Staff: AP

WENATCHEE - Larry Ordway was taking an afternoon nap when he heard his wife, Anna, yelling to get out of the house.

"I got up and started stumbling around," said Ordway, 29. "I heard the smoke alarm go off and saw these black clouds of smoke and flames. When we got outside, all I could feel was the incredible heat."

The couple escaped with their lives. But little else.

The blaze, apparently started by teenagers lighting a campfire and fed by what residents called "howling" 60-mph winds, burned the Ordways' small apartment complex, at least two other small complexes and about 30 houses Saturday in the comfortable Rocklund Place neighborhood nestled below Castlerock, a steep, grass- and sagebrush-covered peak on the western rim of Wenatchee.

THREE TEENS QUESTIONED

Fire officials believe the fire started when three teenagers tried to light a campfire on the hillside above the neighborhood. The youths were questioned Saturday, then released to their parents, but will likely be questioned again today, said Chelan County Sheriff's Deputy Mike Hartrett.

"They did not try to run away," said Greg Thayer, spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service. "They were pretty shook kids and there was no doubt in their minds what they had done."

The blaze, which emergency officials are calling the worst fire in Wenatchee history, was a sucker punch to firefighters who had been battling two other grass fires Saturday on the east side of

Wenatchee when the Castlerock fire began about 2 p.m.

Wenatchee, about 110 miles east of Seattle, has seen its share of major range or forest fires, including the Dinkleman fire that threatened the city of 20,000 people four years ago.

Those other fires, though, just nipped at the edges of town and were usually kept at bay by the green buffer zones that separate the city from the Wenatchee National Forest.

LOSS SET AT $3 MILLION

Saturday's blaze, which blackened about 3,500 acres, began beyond that buffer and took a deep, ferocious bite out of one of the city's most prominent neighborhoods, where homes sat on manicured yards overlooking the Columbia River.

Preliminary estimates placed the property loss at $3 million, said Scott Lowers, head of Chelan County Emergency Management. Five firefighters were treated for smoke-related injuries Saturday, but no one else was hurt, said Thayer, the Forest Service spokesman.

The Red Cross operated a shelter at a local high school for those left homeless. About a dozen people were using it Saturday night.

Most of the rest had found motel rooms or friends and family to take them in.

The winds were calm yesterday as residents who were evacuated Saturday began returning to the 14-year-old neighborhood. Many found their homes burned to the foundation, only the charred chimneys standing.

Some began the slow, mostly futile task of sifting through the rubble for scraps of memories and bits of belongings. One picked through the ashes to find the remains of his coin collection, another retrieved some charred photographs, others were able to collect a few small knickknacks. But many were left with nothing.

"I knew it was gone, but I wanted to see it," said Leslie Hull, who was shopping in town Saturday with his wife, Barbara, when he looked up toward Castlerock and saw the fire whipping through his neighborhood.

Firefighters spent much of yesterday mopping up hot spots, making sure the fire did not kick up again. Insurance-company representatives were also on the scene.

Since the fire moved so rapidly down the hillside, it was remarkable no residents were hurt. Fire officials say many of the homes were destroyed in less than 30 minutes from the time the fire was spotted.

"From the time it started, it was down the hill in five minutes," said Bob Morris, a homeowner who said he was watching the teenagers "playing" up on the hill.

"The wind was moving fast," said Morris, who was trying to hose down his house as the flames approached. "My neighbor said, `We're going to lose some houses, we'd better hit the bricks.' "

Morris fled, but returned today to find his house barely damaged.

Chelan County Fire Battalion Chief Gary Johnson said the flames moved down the hills in a circular fashion and branched out when they hit the homes, destroying some while leaving others untouched.

Morris praised fire and police officials for getting to the area quickly enough to warn residents. Emergency officials drove through the area, warning people by shouting through bullhorns and knocking on doors.

"We had marvelous response," Morris said. "They did the best they could under horrible conditions."

More than 300 firefighters from a number of jurisdictions battled the blaze for about six hours before it was under control. The blaze was not officially declared contained until noon yesterday.

By then, residents seemed resigned to starting over again, and many were trying to find touches of humor in the ordeal.

Bob and Shirley King were at the Puyallup Fair while their home was burning Saturday. Bob said that was better than "standing here, watching it burn."

Everything the couple owned was destroyed in the fire, Bob King said.

"Not everything," said Shirley. "The mailbox wasn't burned. But it was full of bills."

-- Material from The Associated Press was included in this report.

Copyright (c) 1992 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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