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Wildfires threaten Cheney area in 2018


January 3, 2019

While most Cheney residents were dealing with water restrictions on their lawns, others and several West Plains residents were battling with the opposite element – fire.

Specifically wildfires, four of which sprang up around Cheney and Four Lakes – three starting along Interstate 90.

The first of these was a series of small fires that sprang up between the Medical Lake/State Route 902 and Cheney/Four Lakes/State Route 904 exits late in the morning of May 30. Spokane County Fire District 3 crews were quickly on hand to limit the fires to square feet rather than acres.

Emergency response officials suspected a passing vehicle with defective equipment, or a truck getting up to speed along the interstate and thereby discharging flammable carbon particles from its exhaust pipes in a process called regeneration, may have started the fires.

Just over two months later, fire investigators concluded similar circumstances were responsible for a wildfire that burned 345 acres of grass and timber land between Interstate 90 and Granite Lake Road three miles northwest of Cheney. State Department of Natural Resources Northeast Region senior wildland fire investigator John McDonald said in an Aug. 16 Cheney Free Press story that parts coming off a vehicle were likely the culprit in starting what became known as the Silver Lake Fire.

“In this case, it was a wheel hub, a tire came off a trailer around the east end of the 265 (Salnave Road/State Route 902) exit,” McDonald said.

The fire originally started on Aug. 6 at four points along I-90 between Salnave Road exit 265 and just short of Four Lakes exit 270, but merged into two fires along the interstate.

Eventually 126 firefighters from 11 different agencies, including four DNR wildland strike teams and units from Spokane County Fire District 3 and the Medical Lake Fire Department, were involved in combating the blaze. Also helping were eight aircraft, including six Air Boss planes, that benefited from short turn-around times by refilling with water from nearby Silver Lake.

Despite low humidity and temperatures that topped 100 degrees, firefighters were able to get a relatively quick handle on containing the fire and preventing its spread. Initially reported at 100 acres, the fire’s size grew internally rather than outside the containment lines, with flare ups limited to spot fires in unburned areas and some slash piles overnight Aug. 7 and into Aug. 8.

One outbuilding was destroyed, but 100 homes and 121 mixed structures were threatened at one point. According to a report from the State Patrol’s Fire Protection Bureau emergency operations center, the Silver Lake fire cost an estimated $425,000.

Fire burst out again along I-90 on Sept. 24, this time stretching along the freeway from the Medical Lake/SR902 exit east to just short of the Geiger Road exit. There were at least three different fires burning, all about 5-acres in size.

The flames eventually came much closer to home – in fact, erupting just across First Street/SR904 from the Cheney Free Press late in the afternoon on Oct. 2. Fire officials determined a campfire that got away from its creators was responsible for scorching woodlands and threatening several businesses between SR 904 and the railroad tracks before being extinguished.

Cheney Fire Chief Tom Jenkins said once they were able to get into the area, they uncovered evidence of a transient camp near the fire’s origin point west of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe tracks and north of Mullinix Road. Two blackened metal car seat frames were found near a tree, while a car hood was nearby under another tree. Jenkins said the individuals were using the hood to block winds that gusted to a reported 35 miles per hour during that day.

“That hood blew over and fanned their fire, and once it did, it took off,” Jenkins said in an Oct. 11 Cheney Free Press story.

The fire which burned a total of 27.8 acres of dry grasses and Ponderosa pine trees was reported around 3:40 p.m. It burned quickly, forcing evacuations of businesses and the Picnic Pines Campground, while singeing a portion of an exterior wall at North Star Equipment. Firefighting resources from Cheney and Fire District 3 responded almost immediately, but it took a number of aerial passes by five Department of Natural Resources Air Boss aircraft before the fire was brought under control.

Crews from Spokane County Fire Districts 4, 8, 9 and 10 along with the cities of Spokane and Airway Heights, Fairchild Air Force Base and the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife also assisted.

John McCallum can be reached at


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