Washington state wildfire claims first fatality, weather improving

SEATTLE Tue Jul 22, 2014 12:47am IST

1 of 2. The remnants of a home consumed by the Carlton Complex Fire are pictured near Malott, Washington July 20, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/David Ryder

SEATTLE (Reuters) - Cooler weather and lower winds aided firefighters on Monday as they battled a week-old wildfire in Washington state that has destroyed up to 150 homes, scorched a wide swath of wilderness east of the Cascade Mountains and left one person dead.

Several miles of containment lines have been put in place around the perimeter of the Carlton Complex Fire, which has burned through 243,000 acres since it was sparked by lightning on July 14, fire officials said.

A drop in temperatures on Sunday, with rain expected later in the week, was helping some 1,700 firefighters get a handle on the blaze about 120 miles northeast of Seattle, authorities said.  

“We’ve seen a lot of really good progress these past couple of days,” said Joseph Stivey, a fire spokesman with the U.S. Forest Service. “But it’s still an active fire. We don’t have any percent containment just yet.”

The fire, one of about 18 raging from northern California to Idaho as the annual fire season nears its summer peak, has been especially vexing because it is near populated centers in Washington’s picturesque Methow Valley, home to about 10,000 people.

One fatality was linked to the Washington fire, a 67-year-old man who died of a presumed heart attack while working to save his home near the town of Carlton from encroaching flames, Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers.

Robert Koczewski, a retired Washington State Patrol officer and U.S. Marine, had been fending off the blaze for two days when he died on Saturday, Rogers said.

As evacuation orders were issued in about a half-dozen towns last week, several people were initially unaccounted for, but by Monday “there were zero reports of missing persons,” said Rogers.

“I’m amazed. The first days of the fire we had people trapped. People we couldn’t get to. We were just really lucky,” he said.

The blaze has scorched at least 336 square miles of dry timber and grasslands in north-central Washington over the past seven days. Evacuation orders had been lowered in many areas, including the town of Pateros, which saw nearly 40 homes and dwellings destroyed, Rogers said.

Washington Governor Jay Inslee toured damaged towns on Sunday, meeting affected residents and pledging help to rebuild homes.

The region's biggest fire, the lightning-sparked Buzzard Complex in eastern Oregon had expanded to 395,000 acres on Monday. The fire has a 380-mile perimeter, and smoke conditions were reported up to 100 miles away, the Bureau of Land Management said.

(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Jim Loney)

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