As cooler temperatures and lighter winds are forecast to descend on wildfire-stricken Washington state, one man has died trying to save his home.Rob Koczewski, 67, died of a heart attack as he and his wife fought to protect their Carlton home. According to the Okanogan County sheriff, Koczewski was a retired U.S. Marine and Washington State Patrol trooper who was close with local law enforcement.
Sheriff Frank Rogers said the blaze, known as the Carlton Complex Fire, is moving away from populated areas and into timber.
“Today was the first day I was able to see the sun,” Rogers said.
By Sunday evening, flames consumed more than 238,000 acres and burned 150 structures. There has been extensive damage to power lines in the fire’s path.
Crews from across the country have arrived in Central Washington to fight the blaze. It’s estimated that 5,000 men and women are on the fire lines.
Flames are slowly moving closer to Winthrop and Twisp, but the towns aren’t in immediate danger. Twisp is under a Level 2 evacuation order, which means people there need to be ready to leave at a moment’s notice.
Saturday afternoon fire crews had built a line east of the highway between Winthrop and Twisp, which seemed to be holding. Crews also said they had held the fire south of Libby Creek and Benson Creek.
The Carlton Complex Fire started as four smaller fires sparked by lightning July 14. Those fires merged into a 28-square-mile fire by Thursday night before expanding to nearly 336 square miles by Saturday.
Rogers said homes were lost in the areas of Pateros, Malott, Alta Lake, Chiliwist and Star Road. He said this is the worst mass emergency situation he has ever been a part of.
Fire officials said the Chiwaukum Creek Fire west of Leavenworth had grown to more than 10,000 acres by Sunday morning.
The blaze closed U.S. Highway 2 from Coles Corner to Leavenworth. The fire was burning north of the highway, but a spot fire flared up to the south on Saturday that was quickly put out, officials said.
There are no reports of structures being burned, but residents in the area near Leavenworth are under an evacuation order, according to the Washington Department of Natural Resources.
Gov. Jay Inslee said about 50 fires were burning in Washington, which has been wracked by hot, dry weather, gusting winds and lightning. Some 2,000 firefighters are working in the eastern part of the state, with about a dozen helicopters from the Department of Natural Resources and the National Guard, along with a Washington State Patrol spotter plane.
Karina Shagren, spokeswoman for the state’s Military Department, said 100 National Guard troops were on standby, and up to 1,000 more in Yakima could receive additional fire training. Active duty military could be called in as well, Inslee said.
The Washington state Department of Natural Resources announced Saturday evening that firefighters from New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming were coming to the state to help battle the blazes. Early Saturday, authorities announced that they are bringing in two military air tankers from Wyoming to help fight wildfires in the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere. Officials at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, said the tankers were activated to ensure that firefighters had adequate air tanker capability in the region.
Meanwhile, high winds fanned the flames of the Watermelon Hill Fire southwest of Spokane Sunday morning causing the fire to grow from 5,000 acres to 13,000 acres, according to fire public information officer Gerry Bozarth.
Bozarth said the fire was 0% contained on Sunday at noon, but crews were aggressively fighting it through the air and on land.
About 100 structures were threatened as of noon Sunday, approximately the same number as Saturday night. Bozarth had no reports of any homes damaged or destroyed.
Bozarth said the fire did not move towards populated areas overnight, so fire officials as of 8 a.m. Sunday lowered the evacuation orders for almost all areas to Level 1, which means people should be aware they might need to leave the area.
The only mandatory Level 3 evacuation order was in effect for Scroggie Road and Fishtrap Lake Resort.
Bozarth said 279 firefighters were on scene Sunday, and another incident team was ordered to come in to relieve some of the crews.
A shelter at Cheney Middle School that housed several evacuated people Saturday night was closed on Sunday. Bozarth said the shelter would be on standby in case conditions worsened.
The fire was allegedly started around 2:50 p.m. Saturday by three people shooting tanerite, an explosive, southwest of Spokane, according to the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office.
Flames forced the evacuation of rural homes near Fishtrap Lake before jumping into Spokane County.
The Cheney Rodeo Grounds has been set up to take displaced livestock and horses.