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Crews make gains on destructive Washington state wildfire; flash floods now a concern

The Carlton Complex fire burns on the side of a mountain on July 20, 2014 in Carlton, Washington. The Fires have swept the region covering over 215,000 acres of land and destroying over 100 structures. Firefighters from all over the country have been sent to the area in order to try and contain it. (AP Photo/The Seattle Times, Maddie Meyer) SEATTLE OUT, USA TODAY OUT, MAGAZINES OUT, TELEVISION OUT, SALES OUT. MANDATORY CREDIT TO: MADDIE MEYER / THE SEATTLE TIMES.

OLYMPIA, Wash. – Firefighters were making progress Tuesday in their efforts to get the largest wildfire in Washington state’s history under control, with wetter weather bringing some relief but also raising concerns about flash flooding.

The Carlton Complex of fires, which has burned nearly 400 square miles in the north-central part of the state, was 16 per cent contained as of Tuesday, fire spokeswoman Jessica Payne said. A day earlier, the fire was just 2 per cent contained.

Firefighters and local authorities have been heartened by forecasts that call for cooler temperatures and higher humidity. But even though wetter weather has moved in, they worry that lightning strikes could ignite more fires.

“That’s always a concern,” Payne said.

Rain also brings worries about the potential for flash flooding because so much ground vegetation has been burned away.

The National Weather Service issued a flood watch from Wednesday morning through Wednesday evening due to expected heavy rainfall.

“It takes as little as 10 minutes of heavy rain to cause flash flooding and debris flows in and below areas affected by wildfires,” the advisory says. “Rain runs off almost instantly from burned soils … causing creeks and drainages to flood at a much faster rate than normal.”

At more than 250,000 acres, the Carlton Complex is larger than the 1902 Yacolt Burn, which consumed 238,920 acres in southwestern Washington and was the largest recorded forest fire in state history, according to HistoryLink.org, an online resource of Washington state history.

The fire is being blamed for one death. Rob Koczewski, 67, died of an apparent heart attack Saturday while he and his wife were hauling water and digging fire lines near their home. Koczewski was a retired Washington State Patrol trooper and U.S. Marine.

The number of homes destroyed in the Carlton Complex fire remained at 150, Payne said. Two structures, an outbuilding and a seasonal cabin, were confirmed destroyed Tuesday in the Chiwaukum Creek Fire near Leavenworth, she said.

More than 2,100 firefighters and support crew are involved with fighting the fire, Payne said. She said firefighters have had success with fire lines on the east side of state Highway 153 between Carlton and Twisp, and they would be burning lines around Pearrygin Lake on Tuesday.

“If that’s successful, it will mitigate some of the risk to the homes in the area,” she said.

Karina Shagren, spokeswoman for the state’s Military Department, said that while the National Guard has already been offering aerial support, 100 National Guard troops were now being used on the ground for firefighting, and additional troops were receiving firefighting training for potential future use.

President Barack Obama was arriving in the state for a fundraiser Tuesday, and Gov. Jay Inslee was scheduled to meet with him in the afternoon to provide a briefing on the fires.

Also Tuesday, Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell were among a dozen U.S. senators who sent a letter to Senate leaders asking for passage of emergency legislation to allocate $615 million to fight wildfires.

Fires are currently burning in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Utah, Arizona and California, and both Oregon and Washington have declared states of emergency.