CHELAN, Wash. – Firefighters were keeping a wary eye Thursday on big wildfires that Gov. Jay Inslee described as a “slow-motion disaster.”
The National Weather Service issued a red-flag warning for the largest wildfire, the Okanogan Complex, saying rising temperatures, falling humidity and increasing winds had the potential to spread the flames on Thursday afternoon.
“The heat coming back on us early is going to be a problem,” said Rick Isaacson, spokesman for the fire that grew to 450 square miles on Thursday.
The largest wildfire in state history killed three firefighters last week, and has burned at least 40 homes and 40 outbuildings.
Heavy smoke that had grounded aircraft this week lifted a bit Thursday morning and helicopters were able to drop water on the flames, Isaacson said. Aircraft were expected to drop retardant in the afternoon.
More than 1,150 square miles of Washington are on fire, nearly the size of Rhode Island, the state Department of Natural Resources said.
Inslee visited central Washington on Thursday. He spoke in Chelan before travelling to meet firefighters on the lines.
“They know they’re in danger and this danger is persistent,” Inslee said.
Inslee said the fires were more spread out across the state than last year.
“This is not just a local fire, it’s a statewide slow-motion disaster,” he said.
Inslee met with about 20 members of the National Guard and others who were fighting the fire near Lake Chelan. They worked to protect about a half-dozen homes.
Guardsmen Casey Stockwell from Arlington, Washington, said shifting winds have been a challenge.
“Trying to predict what the fire is going to do is one of the hardest things,” Stockwell said.
Major General Bret Daugherty, who commands the Washington National Guard, was travelling with Inslee. He said there were about 1,000 Guard troops helping firefighting efforts, including 200 on the fire lines.
Homeowner Jake Kneisley, 41, leaned against a car down a hill from his two-story home. Kneisley said he was up all night watching the fire blacken the ridge above his home.
“I was pretty anxious earlier,” Kneisley said as firefighters worked nearby. “I feel incredibly lucky these people are here for us.”
Heavy smoke drifted across eastern Washington and northern Idaho, causing all sorts of disruptions. This weekend’s Ferry County Fair in Republic was cancelled because of the smoke. An Indian pow wow scheduled in downtown Spokane starting Friday was moved indoors, as was a large regional tennis tournament in the city.
In other fire developments in the West, residents in west-central Idaho near the town of Riggins have been told to evacuate due to a wildfire that expanded to 40 square miles Thursday. Nearly 600 firefighters are working to protect structures, put in fire lines and use burnouts along U.S. Highway 95 and the Salmon River.
There are 21 large wildfires burning in Idaho, the National Interagency Fire Center said.
In Oregon, a large wildfire near John Day had increased in size, and firefighters were concerned about explosive growth Thursday afternoon. Infrared mapping Thursday morning showed the fire has burned 134 square miles. Local fire departments from around Grant County were pressed into duty Wednesday to protect scores of homes. Most crews were staffed by volunteers.