Rains Good, Lightning Bad for Biggest Wildfire in Washington History

By Don Jergler | July 22, 2014

People afflicted by the massive Carlton Complex fires in north-central Washington may get some relief tonight and over the next few days in the form of wetter, cooler weather.

But then again the system moving in may bring lighting, which is what caused the quarter-million acre fire on July 14.

On Monday hot weather and windy conditions pushed the fire over the ridge tops and into towns resulting in hundreds of evacuations, although the fire’s containment went from 2 percent to 16 percent during the day. Wind gusts to 20 mph were a concern for fire officials who said they were capable of pushing sparks out over a half-a-mile.

However, a system is presently on its way and could provide relief.

“We have a system moving through right now basically tracing right over Washington,” said Heath Hockenberry, national fire weather program manager for the National Weather Service.

While the storm should bring 1/10th to 1/4th inch of rain to the area of the fire, it also has a chance to produce lightning strikes as far north as the fire, and moreso in Oregon and Northern California.

“We’re expecting a couple of days here today and tomorrow where we’re going to have some lighting caused fires,” Hockenberry said.

And once the storm moves out the hot dry weather is expected to return, he added.

At least 150 structures have been destroyed, but no official loss estimates have been issued.

“It’s really too preliminary to give much of an estimate on that, but it’s a lot,” said Karl Newman, president of the NW Insurance Council.

Assuming the properties destroyed where minimally valued at $100,000 each, “you’re looking at more than $15 million just in the value of the homes,” he said.

Now officially at 250,390 acres, the Carlton Complex Fire has now surpassed the two largest recorded wildfires in state history. The Needles Fire in 2003 burned 213,000 acres and the Command 24 Fire in 2000 burned 192,000 acres.

The Carlton Complex fire on Tuesday was at the southern edge of the communities of Pateros and Brewster. In Pateros between 300 and 500 homes were evacuated, according to fire officials.

There are more than 2,100 personnel on the fire. Temperatures in the past day have dropped into the mid 80s down from the 90s, with some moisture currently falling, according to Larry Weaver, a public information officer with the U.S. Forest Service.

“We had a few sprinkles and the temperature went down a bit,” Weaver said.

Power is also being affected by the fire, with sporadic outtages in and around the burning areas, he said.

“We’re in the dark ages here,” he said, adding that cellphones, iPads and other devices at the command center where he spoke from were largely unusable.

Firefighters are gearing up to get more aggressive with the fire and expect to start conducting controlled burns over the next few days, Weaver said.

Newman with NW Insurance Council is hoping for rains in the area to continue – sans lighting.

“If we get rain without lighting certainly that will be better,” said Newman, who said he’s concerned about the wildfire potential all across the Pacific Northwest.

“The Northwest is the hotbed this year for wildfires so far,” he said. “This is our second hot dry summer in a row, and we don’t’ normally get that.”

There are several wildfires currently burning in Oregon, including the massive Buzzard Complex fire at 395,747 acres, which is 85 percent contained, and there are four other fires in the state at 30,000 acres and above.

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