Weather could aid wildfire fight, but ‘lightning watch’ in effect

SPOKANE — Firefighters and local authorities are heartened by weather forecasts that call for cooler temperatures and higher humidity as they battle a destructive wildfire that has charred hundreds of square miles in Washington and is the largest in state history.

They just hope that the “lightning watch” also forecast this week doesn’t ignite new fires.

“We don’t need any more lightning,” Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers said Monday night.

“Right now there’s honestly no wind,” Rogers said, noting that rising evening winds complicated earlier firefighting efforts. “I’m hoping this is helping.”

The Carlton Complex of fires in north-central Washington had burned about 379 square miles, fire spokesman Andrew Sanbri said Monday. That would make it the largest wildfire in the state since record-keeping started.

The fire was just 2 percent contained Monday.

Fire crews quickly attacked a new fire east of Tonasket on Monday, Rogers said. A half-dozen homes were briefly evacuated, but the fire burned past them with no destruction.

Residents of a couple of dozen additional rural homes were told to leave Monday, but Rogers said that was just a precaution.

At 243,000 acres, the Carlton Complex is larger than the Yacolt Burn, which consumed 238,920 acres in southwestern Washington in 1902 and was the largest recorded forest fire in state history, according to HistoryLink.org, an online resource of Washington state history. The Yacolt Burn killed 38 people.

Rogers has estimated that 150 homes have been destroyed already, but he suspected that number could rise. The fire is being blamed for one death.

Firefighters were hampered by the loss of electricity in the area due to downed power lines and poles, which hurt communications. There was no estimate on when utilities would be restored.

The forecast for Tuesday called for lighter winds and lower temperatures, said Spokane-based National Weather Service meteorologist Greg Koch.

Then on Wednesday a vigorous front is expected to cover Washington, bringing rain to much of the state. But it will also bring lightning, Koch added.

“We may get some rain where we need it, but we may also experience some lightning that could cause some new ignitions,” he said.

The fire has created smoky conditions and reduced air quality in much of eastern Washington and northern Idaho.

One man died of an apparent heart attack while fighting the fire near his home, Rogers said.

Rob Koczewski, 67, was stricken on 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, Rogers said.

There are more than 1,600 firefighters battling the flames, assisted by more than 100 fire engines, helicopters dropping buckets of water and planes spreading flame retardant, Sanbri said.

Many towns in the scenic Methow Valley remain without power and have limited landline and cellphone service. Fully restoring power to the area could take weeks, Okanogan County Public Utility District officials told KREM.

The towns of Brewster, Pateros, Twisp and Winthrop were temporarily powering water systems and sewer services by generator, said Mark Clemens, a spokesman at the state Emergency Operations Center.

The state estimates that about 7,000 electricity customers are without power, Clemens said. The population of Okanogan County is about 40,000 people.

More than 100 Washington National Guard soldiers are supporting state Department of Natural Resources firefighters, Clemens added. National Guard helicopters have dropped more than 500,000 gallons of water on the fires.

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