Calmer winds and cooler temperatures helped firefighters go on the offensive Monday against a destructive wildfire that has charred hundreds of square miles in Washington state and is the largest in state history. (July 22)
Pushed by howling, erratic winds, a massive wildfire in north-central Washington was growing rapidly and burning in new directions Saturday. (July 19)
OLYMPIA, Washington — Firefighters made progress Tuesday in their efforts to get the largest wildfire in Washington state's history under control, with wetter weather bringing some relief but also raising concerns about flash flooding.
The Carlton Complex of fires, which has burned nearly 400 square miles in the north-central part of the state, was 16 percent contained as of Tuesday, fire spokeswoman Jessica Payne said. A day earlier, the fire was just 2 percent contained.
Firefighters and local authorities have been heartened by forecasts that call for cooler temperatures and higher humidity. But even though wetter weather has moved in, they worry that lightning strikes could ignite more fires.
Rain also brought worries about the potential for flash flooding because so much ground vegetation has been burned away.
The National Weather Service issued a flood watch from Wednesday morning through Wednesday evening due to expected heavy rainfall.
"It takes as little as 10 minutes of heavy rain to cause flash flooding and debris flows in and below areas affected by wildfires," the advisory said. "Rain runs off almost instantly from burned soils ... causing creeks and drainages to flood at a much faster rate than normal."
Still, the weather change was a positive development.
"The cooler weather and the moisture has cooled aspects of the fire down," fire spokeswoman Susan Peterson said Tuesday evening. "In some instances, firefighters were able to do a direct attack.
"We had additional crews come in, and they were able to put lines in closer to the fire itself."
Speaking at a fundraiser Tuesday in Seattle, President Barack Obama said the wildfire, along with other Western blazes, can be attributed to climate change.
"A lot of it has to do with drought, a lot of it has to do with changing precipitation patterns and a lot of that has to do with climate change," the president said.
Obama also said Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Craig Fugate had authorized an emergency declaration to ensure communities that lost power because of burned power lines and poles get electrical power.
At more than 250,000 acres, the Carlton Complex is larger than the 1902 Yacolt Burn, which consumed 238,920 acres in southwestern Washington and was the state's largest recorded forest fire, according to HistoryLink.org, an online resource of Washington state history.
The fire is being blamed for one death. Rob Koczewski, 67, died of an apparent heart attack Saturday while he and his wife were hauling water and digging fire lines near their home. Koczewski was a retired Washington State Patrol trooper and U.S. Marine.
The number of homes destroyed in the Carlton Complex fire remained at 150, Payne said. Two structures, an outbuilding and a seasonal cabin, were confirmed destroyed Tuesday in the Chiwaukum Creek Fire near Leavenworth, she said.
More than 2,100 firefighters and support crew are involved with fighting the fire, Payne said. She said firefighters have had success with fire lines on the east side of state Highway 153 between Carlton and Twisp, and they planned to burn lines around Pearrygin Lake.
"If that's successful, it will mitigate some of the risk to the homes in the area," she said.
Karina Shagren, spokeswoman for the state's Military Department, said the National Guard has already been offering aerial support, but 100 National Guard troops were now being used on the ground for firefighting, and additional troops were receiving firefighting training for potential future use.
Gov. Jay Inslee briefed Obama on the fire situation after the president arrived in Seattle Tuesday afternoon at the start of a three-day West Coast trip.
"We have real significant challenges," Inslee said. "To have the president here today is actually a stroke of luck."
Inslee said Obama called Koczewski's wife to express his condolences.
Inslee said officials will assess damage to determine whether the state qualifies for a major disaster declaration that would allow people whose properties have been damaged or destroyed to seek additional resources.
Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell were among a dozen U.S. senators who sent a letter to Senate leaders Tuesday asking for passage of emergency legislation to allocate $615 million to fight wildfires.
Fires are currently burning in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Utah, Arizona and California, and both Oregon and Washington have declared states of emergency.
Inslee said that while it was promising that firefighters had gained some ground on the fire, "it's still a growing and dangerous beast."
"We have a long, long ways to go in the fire season, months, before we're out of the woods," he said.