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Residents pick through charred remains of Washington homes

SHARE Residents pick through charred remains of Washington homes

WENATCHEE, Wash. — Tom Bryant watched a wildfire charge up a hillside toward his home, then turned and told his wife it was time to go.

That's when the front door burst open and a firefighter rushed in.

"He doesn't knock," Bryant recalled Monday. "He ran in the door and said to get out."

Bryant, his wife and pets jumped into their vehicle and got out safely. But their home was one of two dozen destroyed in a fast-moving wildfire Sunday night in this central Washington city about 120 miles east of Seattle. A handful of businesses also were destroyed when flames spread to the downtown core.

Firefighters on Monday kept a close eye on the blaze, which has burned more than 4 square miles. It was considered corralled enough to allow evacuees back to their homes, and the Red Cross closed a shelter that housed 155 people Sunday night at a local high school.

The worst wildfire so far this season struck as the state struggles with a severe drought. Mountain snowpack is extremely low, and about one-fifth of the state's rivers and streams are at record low levels.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee issued an emergency proclamation last week that allows state resources to be brought in quickly to respond to wildfires.

Rainfall on Monday provided some relief in Wenatchee, but hot, dry conditions were expected to persist throughout the week as crews tackle this and other wildfires.

At his home, Bryant found the burned remains of his vintage Shelby Mustang GT 500 sports car, buried in ash.

"It hurts, but it's just stuff," he said, while his wife searched for their missing cat.

Down the road, neighbor Vern Smith was in San Jose, California, when the fire broke out.

"I was getting horrifying text messages from my family," Smith said Monday afternoon as smoke rose from the ashes of his home.

His wife, Julie, fled with the kids and pets, but the blaze left only the brick work of their home standing.

"You can't tell from here, but that's a brand-new pickup," Smith said, pointing to the charred remains of a truck in what was once the garage.

"Everybody's safe, and the animals are good," Smith said. "We've got insurance."

Despite the destruction, no residents were hurt. However, three firefighters suffered minor injuries.

Many of the destroyed Wenatchee houses were in an upscale neighborhood on a hillside. Weeping residents drove through the streets Monday where burned homes sat next to ones without damage.

"These were all really nice homes," said Joan Mullene, whose house still stood. "It's really devastating."

Dominick Bonny watched the neighborhood burn from just across the Wenatchee River.

"With the wind blowing away from us, it was like we were watching a natural disaster within arm's reach," he said, calling the speed of the blaze "just mind-blowing."

Officials know the fire started in brush on the edge of town, but they are still trying to determine what sparked it. Sweltering heat above 100 degrees, tinder-dry brush and strong winds helped fuel the flames.

Albert Rookard, who also lives across the river, stayed up late watching the fire, and he was shocked at how fast it grew.

"From here, we could see embers just flying," Rookard said. "There was fire in so many places."

Evacuations were mainly in the north end of town and included a Wal-Mart store, officials said. The store did not burn, but several commercial buildings were near the blaze, State Patrol Trooper Darren Wright said.

Elsewhere in central Washington, a new wildfire was reported late Monday south of the small town of Mansfield, about 40 miles northeast of Wenatchee.

State assistance was authorized to fight that fire, which reportedly has burned more than 3 square miles. Three homes and a ranch were threatened, the Washington State Patrol said.

Associated Press videographer Manuel Valdes in Wenatchee and writers Bob Seavey and Courtney Bonnell in Phoenix and Chris Grygiel and Gene Johnson in Seattle contributed to this report.