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THE largest fire in Washington state history is raging through north-central Washington, a thoroughly natural conflagration that causes human beings to realize how small they are.

Touched off by lightning, likely to be checked only by rains, the Carlton Complex fire has burned through one-quarter of a million acres so far.

A wooded district the size of the Greater Seattle metropolitan area has been reduced to an ashy moonscape. Pateros is half the city it used to be. Photos convey the horror — burned-out foundations, forlorn chimneys, dead cattle by the side of the road. The fire is one of five burning across Eastern Washington and the Cascades. Lawmakers allocated $19 million for the season’s firefighting; so far $25 million has been spent.

We are not entirely helpless. State Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark, who grew up 10 miles from the blaze, says the state can do more to thin diseased and bug-damaged trees in public forests, and to remove low-hanging branches so that flames do not reach the crowns of trees. Last year, Goldmark asked for $10 million over two years; he got $4 million. Washington’s U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell seek additional funding for fire prevention in federal forests.

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For the Washington Legislature, management of state and federal fire crews will be a matter for inquiry. State Rep. Joel Kretz, the Wauconda rancher who lives in the middle of the area beset by fire, after a week on the front lines complains state and federal coordinators responded slowly to outbreaks and restricted access to public lands. The deputy House Republican leader says firefighting crews were held back as flames advanced on Brewster, and the city was saved only because farmworkers and townspeople made a last stand.

Consider that image a moment — hundreds standing against the flames in a heroic effort to save their homes; thousands battling the fire across the length and breadth of the front; communities across the state sending supplies and equipment. Whatever failings there might have been amid the chaos, whatever the cost of the disaster, it is an inspiring story of people working together against forces greater than themselves.

Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Ryan Blethen, Sharon Pian Chan, Lance Dickie, Jonathan Martin, Erik Smith, Thanh Tan, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).

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