Better weather over the weekend allowed firefighters to make progress in battling the wildfires raging across Washington, but poor visibility hindered air operations and winds picked up again Sunday evening.
OKANOGAN, Okanogan County — At the age of 76, Don Dagnon has a half-century of wildland firefighting experience, much of it with a bulldozer that supports his excavating business in the small Okanogan County community of Loomis.
Dagnon had his closest call ever Wednesday when wind-whipped flames jumped over him as he was using the bulldozer’s blade to clear a line in the earth on a hillside.
“I put that son of a gun in high gear and got off the mountain as quick as I could,” he said. “I could feel the heat on the back of my neck, and the dust was so bad that I couldn’t see. I was mostly going by feel.”
Dagnon, a contractor working for the state Department of Natural Resources, said he was able to save every house that he was able to build a fire line around.
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He and thousands of others battling 16 large wildfires across the state may face more tough conditions this week.
Officials monitoring the blazes, which now cover more than 630,000 acres, said Sunday that gentler winds gave firefighters time to make progress over the weekend but that stronger gusts have now arrived.
Relatively mild weather Saturday and most of Sunday also led smoke to blanket affected areas, so much that two National Guard helicopters were unable to reach the local operations base for the Okanogan complex of five fires.
But more robust winds began blowing late Sunday, clearing out the gritty smoke and, amid red-flag warnings, created hotter, more dynamic conditions on the ground.
Although the tallies are far from complete, more than 200 homes have been destroyed across the state, and more than 12,000 homes and thousands of other structures are under threat, state Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark said Sunday.
By itself, the mammoth Okanogan complex of blazes has surpassed 244,000 acres — as much land as was scorched by the Carlton complex last summer. As of Sunday, more than 1,000 fire personnel were in that area alone.
The Okanagan complex’s incident commander, Todd Pechota, said firefighters were dealing with more than 1,000 miles of active fire.
Goldmark called that “ an enormous challenge for this team, but they seem to be getting a handle on where they need to work and where the resources need to go.”
Evacuation levels were downgraded for some areas associated with the Okanogan complex as Sunday wore on. But Pechota said some stretches may continue to burn until rain falls. About 10 percent of the complex was considered contained Sunday, he said.
“We have a herculean amount of work ahead of us,” he said. “We saw a lot of line constructed yesterday, but that line is not secure.”
Outside Spokane, a new mobilization center was being formed at Fairchild Air Force Base to assist with the fire efforts throughout Eastern Washington, after President Obama’s declaration Friday of a federal emergency.
The center, managed by a team from San Diego, will be a staging area for 20 large fire engines from Utah, Nevada, Arizona and Colorado, along with 10 water tankers.
There are now about 700 members of the Washington National Guard working alongside thousands of firefighters, an increase from earlier in the week, officials said.
National Guard Blackhawk helicopters from Wyoming, Colorado and Minnesota are joining helicopters from Washington in the effort, officials said.
Other developments over the weekend:
• Forest Service officials monitoring the Wolverine fire burning west of Lake Chelan asked campers and hikers in the Chiwawa River drainage to leave the area.
• Roughly 800 firefighters from 24 states were toiling against the Kettle complex in Ferry County.
• The Carpenter Road fire in Stevens County grew to more than 35,000 acres and is burning a portion of the Spokane Indian Reservation.
• And in Whatcom County, west of the mountains, more than 150 firefighters and others were fighting to protect structures in the towns of Newhalem and Diablo, which are threatened by the Upper Skagit complex. The Goodell fire — one of the fires in that complex — had spread across more than 3,200 acres, leading to the closure of state Highway 20 between Newhalem and Rainy Pass.
Along with firefighters with shovels and pulaskis, heavy equipment, including big urban fire trucks and bulldozers like Dagnon’s, have played a critical role in efforts to save homes and other buildings.
They have not always been successful, but time and time again, the dozers and firetruck crews — often supported by airdrops of water or retardants — have been able to guide the fires around homes.
Though many of the equipment crews work for agencies or fire departments, some are contractors such as Dagnon, who said he was recruited by a state Department of Natural Resources official while volunteering to do bulldozer work at a friend’s home threatened by fire.
From Tuesday through Saturday, when there was a lull in the action, Dagnon said he got by on three hours of sleep as he worked his dozer to scrape out lines.
Many of the firefighters stay in a large tent community that has sprung up at the Okanogan County Fairgrounds.
But some of the fire-engine recruits have stayed in local motels, where on Sunday several from Nevada received hugs from Lynda Hotchkiss, an evacuee from the White Rock community, west of Okanogan, who discovered they were the ones who helped save her home.
After the fire came through, Hotchkiss’ house looked as if it had been encapsulated in a tiny bubble, and all 12 horses she and her husband Dennis had to leave behind survived. Down the road, another house was burned to its foundation, with just a chimney standing amid a graveyard of firebombed vehicles.
Fire officials Sunday afternoon arranged a tour of the Okanagan firefighting efforts for reporters just as the fires were, once again, picking up momentum. They showed off a spot where they had taken a stand against the edge of a fire, and saved a home.
Then they tried to take reporters up a road to visit a fire crew on the job.
But as fire sprouted on nearby slopes, and an orange glow lit the sky up ahead, they turned back. The 20-person crew that was supposed to be visited by reporters was fighting to save another house and was uncomfortable with the timing of the visit.
“I fully expect we will be fighting fire well into the next month,” said Matt Reidy, a Department of Natural Resources branch operations chief. “We know this is more of a marathon than it is a quick dash.”