Monastery Complex fire incinerates 64 structures in Goldendale


by ROBERTA ROMERO / KING 5 News and Associated Press

Posted on September 9, 2011 at 6:59 AM

Updated Friday, Sep 9 at 3:00 PM

GOLDENDALE, Wash. -- New aerial images from the 5,300 acre wildfire in Goldendale shows 64 structures have been lost in the fire.

It is unknown how many of those are homes, according to fire spokesman Guy Giffords. Previously it was reported nine homes and 13 other structures had been destroyed.

The fire was dubbed the Monastery Complex Fire because it began a short distance from the St. John's Greek Monastery. The fire has already burned more than 5,300 acres of brush and trees, covering an 8 square mile radius. About 200 homes are evacuated.

Department of Natural Resources spokesman Chuck Turley says the number of firefighters will double by Saturday to 600 as the state mobilizes resources.

Traffic on Highway 97 at Satus Pass has been closed at times Friday by smoke and the nearby fire.

A community meeting is planned Friday night at 7:00 p.m. at Goldendale High School.

Many of the residents displaced headed to the Klickitat County Fairgrounds for shelter and food. David Sparks's home is the path of the raging wildfire. He is resigned to the situation and can even laugh, saying he "expects the worst but is hoping for the best."
Also showing up at the makeshift evacuation center on Thursday was Governor Christine Gregoire. The governor took an aerial tour of the area and met with about 50 of the 300 residents driven from their homes.

"My heart goes out to you during this difficult time and I promise the state is doing everything it can to get this fire under control," she told residents.

She also talked about the conditions leading up the fire, warning people that this is going to be a difficult fire season for us.

"We had a long wet summer, so we now we have a lot of dry brush and grass ready to burn," she said.
The National Weather Service says a high pressure system over the Northwest should last through the weekend with cooler temperatures returning later Monday.

A fire incident commander described the blaze to the evacuees as “a greased pig rodeo,” blown first in one direction, then another by shifting winds.

Earlier in the day, state Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark visited with firefighters and flew over the wildfire to assess the damage.

“There’s still a lot of residences in danger, but we’ve got a lot of resources in the air and on the ground,” he said. “Plenty of people have shared resources at a difficult time.”

Washington is experiencing an especially late start to its fire season following a winter with heavy snows and a cool spring.

Goldmark urged residents to be especially cautious given the dry conditions. Of the 500 wildfires in Washington this year, roughly 90 percent have been human-caused, he said.

The cause of this fire is under investigation, but residents say a pickup’s muffler may have sparked it.

“We need people to be extra vigilant not to conduct activities that will start fires,” Goldmark said. “They’re obviously very expensive and very destructive of private property and human health.”

The fire was believed to have started along U.S. Highway 97 north of Goldendale, just across the street from the Monastery of St. John the Forerunner. The 19 nuns and employees, who operate a well-known bakery there, saw flames and immediately ran outside with water, rakes and rags to beat back the fire.

Several customers in the bakery also joined in the effort until firefighters arrived, said Sister Parthenia, who has been at the monastery for 19 years.

“We’re just so grateful to God and everyone’s efforts. The firefighters worked so hard, even opened up a line up there,” she said, pointing behind one of their buildings. “We thought that was sweet they wanted to save our barn.”

The nuns evacuated their dozen-or-so goats. The flames crept up to the edge of their buildings and a cemetery, leaving the wooden crosses intact.

“It was very scary,” said Sister Theopisti. “Thanks to the blessings of God and prayer.”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has announced it will dedicate federal dollars to the fire emergency.