Shelby Nelson organizes clothes at the Pateros school, in Pateros, Wash., for area fire victims on Monday July 21, 20124. Nelson was with a group of volunteers from the Awaken Church in Wenatchee that was helping at the school. (AP PHOTO/WENATCHEE WORLD, MIKE BONNICKSEN)
On Monday July 21, 2014, Jake Hixon, center and Kathy Harding look for family heirlooms they may have been spared at a relatives house after the fire that swept through Pateros, Wash., last Thursday. (AP PHOTO/WENATCHEE WORLD, MIKE BONNICKSEN)
SPOKANE, Washington — The massive wildfire that has destroyed about 150 homes in north-central Washington is now more than half contained, officials said Wednesday night.
Firefighters made good progress Wednesday as rain and hail fell. The moisture wasn't enough to extinguish the nearly 400-square-mile Carlton Complex of fires, but it gave crews a chance to dig lines along the south and east parts of the fire.
The complex, the largest wildfire in state history, was reported to be 52 percent contained by late Wednesday, up from 16 percent earlier in the day.
Fire spokeswoman Kris Erikson described the intense thunderstorm that hit the fire as like "judgment day."
"It was major, but short," she said. "Will it put the fire out? No."
But the storm raised humidity in the area of the fire and prevented it from growing much, Erikson said.
The wildfire is being fought by about 2,500 people.
Officials were concerned that lightning could spark new fires in the parched region, and that the precipitation could lead to flash floods because so much ground vegetation has been lost. The National Weather Service issued a flash-flood watch from Wednesday morning through evening.
Two other major fires are burning in north-central Washington.
The Chiwaukum Complex near Leavenworth has burned 12,225 acres, is 10 percent contained, and has 1,000 firefighters on the scene. The Mills Canyon fire remains at 22,571 acres and is 90 percent contained.
The Carlton Complex has burned about 150 homes and is blamed for one death after a man died of a heart attack while hauling water and digging a fire line to protect his home.
Meanwhile, President Barack Obama on Wednesday declared a state of emergency in Washington because of the fires. The declaration authorized the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to coordinate disaster relief and help state and local agencies with equipment and resources.
"These additional resources will significantly help our efforts to restore power to thousands of people affected by these fires," Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee said. "I appreciate his prompt response and partnership in helping our state."
Inslee spoke with the president during his visit to the state Tuesday.
The governor also requested additional federal resources, including assistance from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to help with assessment, planning and installation of emergency power generators to restore power to facilities critical to the well-being of fire-damaged communities. These include water and wastewater treatment systems and other municipal facilities.
Inslee declared a state of emergency on July 15 in the 20 counties of eastern Washington as a result of wildfires. The governor amended the proclamation on Monday to include a temporary outdoor burn ban in that part of the state. The ban is effective through Friday.
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 Wenatchee World reported Wednesday that two area residents were arrested on suspicion of arson this weekend, accused of setting two separate back burns that got out of control, with one of them almost trapping a fire crew in a canyon. The back burns were lighted by men trying to save property, Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers said. Back burns are secondary fires lit on purpose to burn fuels in the path of an oncoming fire.