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Firefighters contain blaze near Ellensburg

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Smoke is seen rising from two wildfires Wednesday Oct. 5, 2012 near White Salmon, Wash., that have burned more than 1,500 acres threatening at least 30 homes. The Klickitat County sheriff's office told residents of those 30 homes to evacuate, Debbie Robin

Smoke is seen rising from two wildfires Wednesday Oct. 5, 2012 near White Salmon, Wash., that have burned more than 1,500 acres threatening at least 30 homes. The Klickitat County sheriff’s office told residents of those 30 homes to evacuate, Debbie Robinson, a state Department of Natural Resources spokeswoman, said Wednesday night. Residents of another 400 homes were warned they might need to evacuate, she said.

Debbie Robinson, Washington Department of Natural Resources, Associated Press

YAKIMA, Wash. — Firefighters worked in hot weather and dry terrain Thursday to contain a wildfire that forced the evacuation of more than two-dozen homes in a popular recreation area in the Pacific Northwest's Columbia River Gorge.

The fire has burned across more than 2 square miles, or 1,500 acres, of trees and grass in south-central Washington state, about 60 miles northeast of Portland, Ore., in a rural area known among outdoors enthusiasts for its whitewater rafting, salmon fishing and wind surfing.

Meanwhile, firefighters fully contained another wildfire that burned across nearly a square mile near Ellensburg in the state's central region after briefly threatening a handful of homes.

The new blazes served as a reminder that with hot temperatures come increasing wildfire risks, even as summer gradually winds into fall. The National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, has said continued dry conditions would cause the wildfire season to linger in much of the West, and that chances were low for a season-ending weather event with rain or snow in the Northwest.

Near the Columbia River Gorge, residents of about 30 homes have been evacuated, said Stan Hinatsu of the U.S. Forest Service. A total of about 450 houses are threatened by the fire, and most of those residents have been told to be ready to flee if the fire heads their way.

No homes have been lost, and no injuries have been reported.

The fire started in multiple spots along Highway 141. The exact cause has not been determined, but authorities said it's not necessarily suspicious.

"Obviously it's human caused in some way," Hinatsu said. "It could have been the wheel from a flat tire throwing off sparks."

Jaco Klinkenberg, one of the owners of Wet Plant Whitewater, could see smoke and flames peeking over the hillside from her business in Husum, north of White Salmon and on the edge of the fire. But she said the company was still in normal operations, with a large corporate rafting event planned Thursday afternoon.

"The highway is open. The river is open. Our business is open, and we're rafting," she said. "For us, it's still summer here, and it's still busy."

The fire had burned to within a mile of Rusty Hicks' home after it started Wednesday afternoon, but Hicks said he breathed a little easier Thursday morning when the winds shifted from the east.

Hicks, who opened a guide service for fishermen nine months ago, saw flames along the highway as he drove to the nearby Klickitat River to fish with a few buddies. He said he doesn't expect the fire to hurt his business and has clients lined up for the coming weekend.

"We're having a good day on the water today, out here catching a few salmon," he said. "They'll get 'er wrestled down today. They've got good people on the fire."

High temperatures and breezy conditions were the biggest concern for firefighters.

Temperatures in central Washington have been several degrees above average in recent days. They were expected to remain above average through Sunday, when a cold front could bring cooler temperatures but more wind.

"That will be a system we'll be watching, because it will bring in windy conditions and not a lot of precipitation," said Jeff Cote, meteorologist with the National Weather Service. "If there are still ongoing fires, it could make them a little harder to contain."

At least 200 firefighters were on the scene Thursday, with more scheduled to arrive, Washington Department of Natural Resources spokeswoman Linda Hazlett said.

Meanwhile, crews to the north fully contained a wildfire that started at about midnight Wednesday and blackened an estimated 700 acres near Ellensburg before firefighters contained it Thursday.

Seventeen homes there had been threatened by the blaze, but all evacuation orders there had been lifted, Hazlett said. The cause of the fire was under investigation.

Ellensburg sits in rural Kittitas County, where firefighters already battled another damaging wildfire this summer. Last month, the Taylor Bridge Fire burned across more than 36 square miles, destroying 61 homes and 35 outbuildings. That fire was declared completely contained at the end of August.