SPOKANE, Wash. – Calmer winds and cooler temperatures were allowing firefighters to go on the offensive Monday against a destructive wildfire that has charred hundreds of square miles of terrain in Washington state and is the largest in state history.
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.
“There is optimism in the air, but we don’t want to give the impression that all is good,” Sanbri said. “Things are improving.”
The fire was just 2 percent contained Monday.
But the news was not all good. The Okanogan County Sheriff’s Office announced mandatory evacuations Monday afternoon of rural areas south of Highway 20 between the towns of Twisp and Okanogan. That included the small town of Carlton. It was not immediately clear how many homes were involved in the evacuations. Highway 20 was also closed because of fire activity.
At 243,000 acres, the Carlton Complex was larger than the Yacolt Burn, which consumed 238,920 acres in southwestern Washington in 1902 and killed 38 people.
Firefighters planned to aggressively protect houses near Libby Creek on Monday by keeping the flames from jumping the waterway, Sanbri said. Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers has estimated that 150 homes have been destroyed, but he suspected that number could rise. The fire is being blamed for one death.
Firefighters on Monday had also planned to burn fuel on the north side of the fire to help build a fire line, but that operation was canceled, fire spokesman Don Carpenter said.
Firefighters were also hampered by the loss of electricity in the area as downed power lines and poles hurt communications. There was no estimate on when utilities would be restored.
The forecast for Monday and today 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 bring 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 has 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.
A total of 100 National Guard troops were on standby and up to 1,000 more could receive additional fire training, said Karina Shagren, spokeswoman for the state’s Military Department. Active-duty military could be called in as well.