Cooler weather and calmed winds aided firefighters attempting to corral the largest wildfire in Washington state history.
With more than 240,000 acres of the scenic Methow Valley area blackened and 150 homes destroyed since lightning ignited the Carlton Complex fire last week, cooler temperatures and higher humidity in the forecast has encouraged Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers.
He said fire crews quickly attacked a new fire Monday east of Tonasket. About a half-dozen homes were evacuated, but the fire burned past with no destruction.
And residents of a couple of dozen additional rural homes were told to leave Monday, but Rogers said that was just a precaution.
Firefighters are focusing on containing the large fire south of Twisp, which lies up the Methow Valley from the Columbia River community of Pateros, where fire burned dozens of homes during the weekend.
The cooler temperatures bring a downside: a storm system that could deliver more lightning.
“We don’t need any more lightning,” he said.
To help firefighting efforts southwest of Spokane, state officials closed the boat ramp at Fishtrap Lake so tanker trucks can be filled to help extinguish the blaze near Cheney called the Watermelon Hill fire that has burned about 11,000 acres of rangeland. It is about 40 percent contained, according to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Officials warned Monday that residents near the north side of the Carlton Complex fire might see smoke rising as they work to dig a fire line east of Highway 153 between Carlton and Twisp. “There is optimism in the air, but we don’t want to give the impression that all is good,” fire spokesman Andrew Sanbri said. “Things are improving.”
The fire was just 2 percent contained Monday.
The Okanogan County Sheriff’s Office had 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 also was closed because of fire activity.
The fire knocked out power in the area and is blamed for the death of a man who suffered an apparent heart attack while fighting fire near his home. Rob Koczewski, 67, was stricken 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.
Firefighters have split into three teams to battle the blaze, with operations based in Omak, Winthrop and Chelan, according to a news release.
U.S. Forest Service land south of Twisp River Road remains closed so crews can continue fire containment.
Efforts to contain the fire at Pearrygin Lake northeast of Winthrop were called off Monday, though officials said smoke may be visible there as crews work on a controlled burn of 130 acres intended to stop the northern push of the fire.
On the east side of the fire, crews have been able to establish a fire line along Highway 97 between Brewster and Malott that has held for 48 hours. Crews will continue efforts today, with calm winds expected, to keep the fire from spreading east.
Highway 20 to the north of the fire, including Loup Loup Pass, has reopened, but officials are urging caution as the roadway is experiencing heavy traffic from fire crews.
More than 100 Washington Natural Guard soldiers are supporting state Department of Natural Resources firefighters, state spokesman Mark Clemens said Monday. National Guard helicopters have dropped more than 500,000 gallons of water on the fires.