Washington wildfires

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Washington state’s worst-ever wildfire season took center stage once again in Washington, D.C.

Two local fire officials testified before the U.S. Senate’s Energy & Natural Resources Committee Tuesday, appealing to lawmakers for more funding for fire suppression and preparedness.

Another round of warm weather this week is prompting Northwest fire managers to warn that this summer's challenging fire season isn't over yet.

Ted S. Warren / AP

The recent rain doesn't mean the wildfire danger is over. That's the message heading into Labor Day weekend from fire managers in the Northwest.

Firefighters hose the edge of a controlled fire.
Elaine Thompson / AP

Firefighters are starting to get a handle on two giant wildfires burning in northcentral Washington.

The largest wildfire in state history, the Okanogan Complex, has now grown to 231 square miles but as Wednesday morning it was 45 percent contained.

The Okanogan Complex is being managed as part of one big fire including the 146-square-mile Chelan Complex. The Chelan Complex was 55 percent contained as of Wednesday morning.

The Chelan and Okanogan Complex fires total more than 230,000 acres. Both fires still threaten more than 8,000 homes.

In the poem “Mending Wall,” Robert Frost lays down the well-worn quote, “Good fences make good neighbors.” In this year’s dramatic Northwest wildfires, ranchers and neighbors are cutting down “good fences” of all kinds.

Multiple times this summer, the sighting of a wayward hobbyist drone has grounded aerial firefighting aircraft at Western wildfires. But unmanned aircraft have the potential to be useful at wildfires too.

This has been one of the worst — and most expensive — wildfire seasons ever in the Northwest, where climate change and a history of suppressing wildfires have created a dangerous buildup of fuels.

With fires burning hotter and more intense, there are renewed calls to change how the federal government pays to fight the biggest fires.

"These large and intense fires are a natural disaster in much the same way a hurricane or a tornado or a flood is," U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says. "And they ought to be funded as such through the emergency funding of FEMA."

AP Images

New tools and new strategies are needed to fight and prevent wildfires nationwide. That was the sentiment at a field hearing held in Seattle by the U.S. Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

The hearing  was convened by U.S. Senators Maria Cantwell of Washington, a Democrat, and John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican. They are collecting testimony for the Wildland Fire Management Act of 2015.

Unhealthy smoke continued to blanket large parts of central and eastern Washington state and north Idaho Wednesday. Some workers in north central Washington were sent home because the dense smoke was rated downright “hazardous.”

Todd Petit / Flickr

Many of the communities affected by this year's wildfires in central and eastern Washington have economies that rely heavily on tourism.

KPLU travel expert Matthew Brumley says once the wildfire danger has passed, people should consider taking time to visit central and eastern Washington, to inject money back into the economy.

Some places have been evacuated and suffered damage from the wildfires. But others are just in a region people have chosen to avoid, to steer clear of wildfire danger this summer.

Here are some good places to look:

The incident command for Washington’s biggest wildfire requested a mental health team to help people in Okanogan County. A national nonprofit called Green Cross has responded to the call.

Firewise is the name of a long-running campaign to get homeowners in wildfire country to take steps to reduce risk. Outside Omak, Wash., John Belles didn't just do the simple things. He built a futuristic, thin-shelled concrete dome house. It's now an unscathed beacon amid acres of hillside blackened by the Okanogan fire, the largest in state history.

Stephanie Sinclair

Friday’s rainy start was the first part of “a theater piece in two acts,” said KPLU weather expert Cliff Mass. “The first act happened this morning.”

The showers that doused the northwest overnight will return in the afternoon, Mass says, accompanied by “all kinds of thunderstorms and heavier rain. ”  

He predicts those will start revving up sometime between 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. “And I would expect rain around dinnertime into the early evening.”

NASA's Earth Observatory

A number of forest fires are continuing to burn in British Columbia.  As Craig McCulloch reports, the cost and smoke permeating the Vancouver area is getting attention.

The British Columbia Wildlife Service is reporting that 76 active fires larger than 25 acres (10 hectares) are currently burning across the province. There are many more smaller fires engulfing forests.

Paradise Fire Incident Management Team

A smoldering fire in Olympic National Park flared up over the weekend, scorching at least 600 acres before heavy smoke and inaccessible terrain made the blaze too hard to measure.

In what is usually the wettest area of the lower 48 states, parts of the rainforest landscape have turned to tinder this year and set the stage for the rapid spread of the Paradise Fire.

“What’s actually carrying the fire are the lichens in the very tops of the trees. They're so dry that they’ll actually carry fire, and so the fire is jumping through the tree canopies,” said Donna Nemeth, an information officer with the Fire Incident Team made up of National Park Service and National Forest Service personnel.

AP Images

The Washington Commissioner of Public Lands said warmer than usual weather has not only increased the wildfire risk, it also has increased the likelihood that firefighting resources across the west will be stretched thin come summer.

“We need to be more self sufficient ,” Commissioner Peter Goldmark said.

He said so many communities are struggling with drought that the state can’t count on outside help if wildfires strike.

“In the past, sometimes we’ve been able to rely on contract resources or other states," Goldmark said. "But because of the widespread nature of the drought, and the ensuing fire potential, we can no longer count on other states or adjacent states or other entities coming to help us.”

That’s why he is requesting an additional $4.5 million dollars to pay for emergency staffing and equipment. That’s on top of an unprecedented ask for $20-million for longer-term forest health work, thinning stands and making public forests more resistant to wildfire.

Goldmark says last year’s Carlton Complex Fire was the worst he has ever seen.  The current draught declarations combined with this year’s warmer than normal forecast for the summer is making him nervous.

Goldmark says he won't count on help from anyone this season. Last year, the deadly Carlton Complex required help from 40 states.  

Washington Interagency Incident Management Team #4

Due to the extreme fire danger across nearly all of Washington from hot, dry weather, the state has expanded its ban on outdoor fires.

Washington Interagency Incident Management Team #4

The wildfire burning on the Colville Indian Reservation continues to grow. The Devil's Elbow Complex, which has topped 19,000 acres, is only 4 percent contained.

Elaine Thompson / AP Photo

Gov. Jay Inslee is asking President Obama for a Major Disaster Declaration to deal with devastating wildfires in eastern Washington.

A declaration would provide federal assistance to help families, business owners and local governments recover from the wildfires.

Three small fires believed sparked by lightning have now converged into what is being called the Devil’s Elbow Complex on the Colville Indian Reservation.

The blaze, which spans 2,500 acres, is threatening about 50 structures on the reservation 10 miles north of the town of Keller. 

U.S. Forest Service

The Carlton Complex, the largest fire in Washington state history, is now approximately 90 percent contained, according to fire officials. 

Fire information officer Andy Lyon says officials do have concerns about wind in the forecast, though they are hopeful full containment will come soon. He adds the containment lines, which run nearly 200 miles around the 255,000-acre blaze, are very extensive.

Anna King

Firefighters are battling the lightning-sparked Snag Canyon Fire that has grown quite large just north of Ellensburg.

The blaze, which has burned nearly 2,000 acres, is challenging firefighters who are trying to secure lines closest to town.

Northwest Interagency Coordination Center

Kittitas County Commissioner Obie O’Brien said he fears about a dozen homes have been lost to a fast-growing wildfire in the foothills north of Ellensburg, Washington. Those losses have not been confirmed.

State Department of Natural Resources regional manager Todd Walker said hundreds of firefighters have been called in to corral the fire.

Elaine Thompson / AP Photo

There will be plenty of sunshine for Seafair weekend, says KPLU weather expert Cliff Mass, but dry conditions and a chance of lightning could mean trouble for firefighters.


The lights are coming back on in fire-swept north-central Washington. A major transmission line was restored late last week, but not everyone has their power back.

As of Monday about 900 customers remain in the dark as a result of the state’s largest wildfire.

Elaine Thompson / AP Photo

The Carlton Complex fire has consumed 300 homes in north-central Washington, the Okanogan County sheriff said Friday. It’s too soon for many people to know what they lost in the fire, including homes, orchards, livestock and pets.

AP Photo

Federal funds are being used to help fight the wildfires that have raged across the Northwest this summer. But so far, the Federal Emergency Management Agency isn't handing out money directly to owners of the nearly 200 homes lost in the blazes.

Courtney Flatt

The Okanogan County Sheriff’s Department ordered more homeowners to evacuate Monday afternoon after firefighters saw a brief relief from high winds and hot weather Sunday.

Donations are coming in by the truckload to the Pateros High School in central Washington. Piles of clothes hip-deep fill the gym. Stacks of food, water and pet food line the hallways.

Elaine Thompson / AP Photo

The most destructive wildfire currently burning in the Northwest has left thousands of people without air conditioning and refrigeration. The so-called Carlton Complex fire has closed gas stations and shut down ATMs in north-central Washington.

Okanogan County currently estimates 150 to 200 homes burned to the ground. The Okanogan County Utility District says its electrical system is almost a complete loss.