Damper weather and slower winds helped firefighters this morning in their efforts to contain the hundreds of thousands of acres of wildfires that have charred Central Washington.
In Pateros, the heart of the massive Carlton Complex fire, humidity hit 26 percent on Sunday morning and winds calmed to 7-9 mph, according to the National Weather Service. In Leavenworth, near the Chiwaukum Creek fire, humidity was 31 percent on Sunday morning with winds between 9 mph and 14 mph.
The forecast calls for continued cooler and damper weather in the next few days. Bob MacGregor, a fire information officer for the multi-agency effort working to put out the fires near Leavenworth, said this morning there should be rain Tuesday and Wednesday, which should help firefighters as long as lightning strikes don’t spark new blazes.
“The forecast for the next few days is great for firefighting,” MacGregor said.
The change in weather is somewhat good news, but an updated count of the number of homes destroyed by the fire is now at 150, up from 100, according to Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers. He said the number could even go higher.
With the improved weather conditions overnight, firefighters moved to set up a four-mile containment line to keep the Carlton fire south of Libby Creek near Carlton and east of Highway 153.
“The weather has moderated slightly and that has benefited some,” said Jim Schwarber, a fire information officer working on the Carlton fire. “We’re getting a little offensive rather than just being defensive.”
The fire grew in the last day and is now covering 238,000 acres, about 23,000 acres more than on Saturday. But all of that new acreage is uninhabited wilderness area. Schwarber said about 1,400 firefighters are working to put out the blaze.
And as helpful as the weather has been this morning, warmer and drier conditions could cause problems in the afternoon.
“Once the sun comes out, things start drying up again,” Schwarber said.
The cooler, more humid conditions are helping firefighters contain the Mills Canyon fire, southeast of the Carlton blaze, MacGregor said. The Mills Canyon fire, which covers 22,571 acres, is now 75 percent contained.
Fire managers are moving some of those firefighters to the Chiwaukum Creek fire, northwest of Leavenworth, which is 0 percent contained, and burning 10,435 acres Sunday morning.
“The crews are going to take care of the good weather,” MacGregor said. “We’re throwing more of our resources into that (fire).”
That means putting 14 more crews, with 46 more engines and 304 more firefighters, on the blaze.
The objective is to keep it west of Highway 2. Firefighters are patrolling the blaze to make sure it doesn’t jump the highway and threaten homes on the east side, MacGregor said.
Crews are also fighting two more remote fires. The Duncan fire, burning a few miles north of the Cottonwood Guard Station in the Entiat Valley, has charred 889 acres and is 0 percent contained. It’s a high-elevation fire that threatens 14 cabins run by the Forest Service.
Three crews and five engines are working to put the fire out. Firefighters are logging to the south of the fire to clear fuel to stop it from advancing.
Firefighters are also working to put out a blaze on nearby Kelly Mountain that’s covering 120 acres and is 0 percent contained. Fire managers put seven smoke jumpers and a 20-person crew on the fire. They benefited from rain that fell there last night.
“That really took some of the aggressiveness out of the fire,” MacGregor said. “They think they can button that up today.”
The advancing Carlton Complex wildfire, the largest of several burning in the state, may also be slowing down in some parts. Okanogan County Sheriff Rogers said the smoke from the fires, which filled the skies, has begun to dissipate.
“Today is the first day I’ve seen blue skies” since the fires began, Rogers said.
Nevertheless, the Carlton fire has picked up on its north side closer to Winthrop. Winds have been erratic and were blowing the fire in different directions. The blaze was burning in a sparsely populated area, with homes scattered throughout the woods and along Highway 20.
The fire didn’t claim any more homes overnight, Rogers said, though more than 150 homes have been destroyed in the county. Rogers said there haven’t been any new evacuation orders since Saturday. And while the fire remains massive, it’s burning biggest in an area that isn’t currently threatening any communities where people live.
Along with destroying homes, the fire has killed cattle. Many of the homes and businesses in Pateros, Twisp, Winthrop and Carlton are without power, and most of those communities also have spotty telephone service.
“We’ve got so many other issues than the fire,” Rogers said. “It’s just flat overwhelming.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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