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Originally published July 21, 2014 at 9:31 PM | Page modified July 22, 2014 at 9:49 PM

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Rain forecast for fire zones — so next threat is flash floods

The Carlton complex fire is the biggest in Washington’s recorded history, and it’s not expected to be out any time soon.


Seattle Times staff reporters

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WINTHROP — Fire-ravaged areas in Central Washington now have another danger to worry about: flash floods.

The Weather Service today issued a “flash flood watch” for much of North Central Washington, particulary on slopes that have lost vegetation in recent fires.

The watch, in effect from Wednesday morning to Wednesday evening, says a low- pressure system will produce “a band of moderate to heavy rainfall over the east slopes of the of the northern Cascades.”

The weather system has “the potential for some thunderstorms with very heavy rainfall rates.”

It takes as little as 10 minutes of heavy rain to cause flash floods or mud and debris slides in areas that have recently been burned, the advisory notes.

Travelers in the area are urged to use caution.

In words that resonate particularly strongly in light of March’s disastrous mudslide that killed 43 in Snohomish County, this flood watch notes: “Rushing water and debris, including trees and rocks, can damage or destroy culverts, bridges, roads and buildings.”

Through the early part of Tuesday, a light rainfall offered hope to the more than 2,100 firefighters battling the largest wildfire in state history.

“It’s just an occasional sprinkling, just enough to dampen your windshield ... but by raising the humidity, it could keep the fire from blowing up and spreading,” said Don Peterson, spokesman for the multiagency team fighting the 250,000-acre Carlton Complex fire in Okanogan County.

This morning, state transportation workers reopened Highway 20 east of Twisp, which had been closed by fire since Thursday night.

Still unknown is how long it will take to restore power to Okanogan County communities, particulary those in the Methow Valley. Peterson said the fire destroyed 80 utility poles on Highway 20 toward Loup Loup Pass.

Despite the light rain this morning, Peterson said there’s only a 10 percent chance of a “wetting rain” today that could help put out the fire in areas already burning.

The chance of showers and thunderstorms rises to 30 percent later Tuesday and 70 percent on Wednesday.

Forecasters say it’s too early to tell whether storms that could spread across Central Washington would bring fire-extinguishing rains, or start new fires with a round of lightning.

At the entrance to Liberty Bell Junior-Senior High School in Winthrop, a sprawling tent city has taken shape, with rows of portable toilets, an open-air mess hall and mobile showers.

This isn’t an evacuation camp for the people living in the 153 residential structures destroyed by the Carlton complex wildfire. This is one of three firefighting command posts that house and coordinate the men and women battling the Carlton Complex fire.

Operations like this are expected to continue for some time. Gov. Jay Inslee acknowledged over the weekend that the region’s firefighting resources are spread thin and that he anticipated no quick end to the fire.

“This is something we’re going to continue to be in for weeks and months to come,” he said.

Fire crews and aid workers are bracing for the possibility that midweek thunderstorms could bring more lightning, which started the Carlton complex fires July 14.

“It’s tough to say at this point what to expect,” said Ryan Fliehman, National Weather Service meteorologist. Thunderstorms forecast to sweep through Central Washington on Wednesday also could bring rain to ease firefighting efforts, he said.

The potential of more lightning-caused fires is a big concern for Zonia Quero-Ziada, manager for the Red Cross shelter in Brewster. The Red Cross opened the shelter Sunday night, anticipating that more residents will need clean water, food and other resources over the next few days.

“We hope it doesn’t happen, but if it does, we are here,” she said.

Several Spanish-speaking workers also are available to help, said Quero-Ziada.

Because most of the emergency information has been transmitted in English, she said, many in the area’s large Hispanic community haven’t been getting updates, and she urged people to come to the shelter for information.

“Usually it’s the minority groups that get sidetracked; that don’t know what’s going on,” she said.

Difficult decisions

Firefighters battling the Carlton complex blaze Monday had at their disposal 11 helicopters and 132 fire engines, according to a report put out by the National Interagency Coordinating Center.

But the fire was only 2 percent contained Monday night, according to the report.

The fire was reported 16 percent contained Tuesday morning.

Inslee cited a shortage of equipment such as helicopters to aid fire-suppression efforts.

“From the fire standpoint, our state is stretched beyond imagination,” he said, adding later: “These firefighters are having to make very difficult priority decisions.”

Battling a fire this big — the Carlton complex fire has burned an area 4.5 times the size of Seattle — demands an army of resources.

Water trucks and fire engines must be staffed, fueled and repaired. Hundreds of men and women at each of the three command centers must be fed and showered. Equipment and supplies must be procured. Payroll must be up to date.

The Liberty Bell school serves as the nerve center for fighting the northern part of the Carlton complex fire. In a home-economics room, administrators discuss where to send fire engines and crews. They decide what kind of strategies — digging fire lines, protecting structures, making airdrops of water and fire retardant — will be used and where.

A human-resources department is in a small corner office. Since the area is without electricity — the fire took out power last week — it is lit by two battery-powered lanterns. Down the hall is a medical room, an information office and rooms where night-shift firefighters sleep.

And the grounds around the school are dominated by hundreds of tents for firefighters, who have come from all over. Licenses plates in the parking lot read California, Oregon, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho.

John McDonald, 58, the camp’s logistics section chief, said firefighters and other workers have come from almost every state.

McDonald’s job is to make sure the camp — mobile showers, laundry services, mess hall, lunch stations, supply units, radios and more — run smoothly.

And he says it mostly has, aside from the camp losing power Thursday.

“We had to move pretty quickly to adjust to those needs,” McDonald said. As of Monday afternoon, the camp relied on a series of generators for everything from lighting to cooking.

Biggest fire recorded

The Carlton complex fire, which accounts for roughly three-quarters of the acreage burning in Washington, grew by Tuesday morning to 250,136 acres (about 380 square miles). That made it the largest wildfire in recorded history in Washington.

It surpassed the 1902 Yacolt Burn in Southwest Washington, which, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, destroyed nearly 239,000 acres.

The 1902 fire, with no overall firefighting effort, killed 38 people in Clark, Cowlitz and Skamania counties and destroyed 146 homes.

The Carlton fire has destroyed 154 structures, according to Paul Gibbs, spokesman for fire crews on the Carlton complex fire. That includes 150 single-family homes, three multifamily residences and one commercial building.

Homes were still in danger. Monday evening, on its Facebook page, the Okanogan County Sheriff Office ordered evacuations of endangered areas.

One person has died. An Okanogan County resident, Rob Koczewski, 67, died of a heart attack Saturday after trying to save his Carlton-area home from flames.

There are five other fires of notable size in Washington — Saddle Mountain fire near Vantage, Chiwaukum Creek fire near Leavenworth, Mills Canyon fire north of Wenatchee, R Road fire east of Chelan and Watermelon Hill fire south of Cheney. There also are dozens of smaller fires, according to Sandra Kaiser of the state Department of Natural Resources.

Times reporters Andy Mannix and Jack Broom added to this report.Joseph O’Sullivan: 206-464-2201 or josullivan@seattletimes.com.



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