The Okanogan complex and Chelan complex fires both continued to grow Monday, and morning smoke is making it difficult to fight the fires with aircraft.
By the standards of the past week, the Okanogan complex fires in recent days have only been on a slow creep — advancing less than 13,000 acres from Sunday to Monday.
But that bump was enough to make this group of fires the biggest in state history. And in the dry days ahead, they are expected to burn thousands more acres of range and forest.
The Okanogan complex fires — now more than 256,567 acres — break the record set only last year in North Central Washington, when the Carlton complex fire burned 256,108 acres, according to the government’s fire-monitoring website.
And eight communities are still at Level 3 evacuations in which residents have been told to leave the area.
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Though fire crews have built a lot of line around the fires in recent days, that line is not secure, so incident commander Todd Pechota said Monday the fires still are considered 10 percent contained — the same as Sunday.
“We continue to be very aggressive with hand-line construction and dozer construction,” Pechota said., “These fires — the only way to deal with it is like eating an elephant — one bite at a time.”
The fierce wind gusts that spurred last week’s tremendous growth ended Friday, but the fires have been active in afternoons as inversions lift and winds pick up.
The fire flared up Sunday and “There was some movement that got kind of crazy ” when one corner of the Okanogan complex’s Lime Belt fire moved into some steep territory, said Rick Isaacson, a fire-information officer.
The terrain is not easily accessible, and firefighters are unable to put in bulldozer lines or hand lines.
“It’s going to cause some problems,” Isaacson said.
No new homes were lost and none of the 1,250 firefighters now working the Okanogan complex were injured, according to Pechota.
Fire officials have not released statistics on how many houses have been lost to the fires as they blazed through lands dotted with houses, trailers and outbuildings. They have repeatedly said they have been able to save far more houses than were lost to flames.
But dozens of homes are likely to have burned.
“I’m hoping the number is less. I fear the number may be that,” said Peter Goldmark, the state Public Lands Commissioner whose ranch is in Okanogan County.
He said many people want to live in the county’s rural areas. ” That is why people love it here. They build out in the wild land whenever they can.”
Some of the dozens of burned homes are easy to spot as they sit close to paved roads. Others are tucked back in the woods along unpaved roads in areas where hot spots still smolder.
Fire officials said the damage survey by county officials will only proceed as conditions are safe enough to allow access.
Meanwhile, about 500 people remain without power in Okanogan County because of the fires, according to the Okanogan Public Utilities District. The district is replacing more than 500 poles destroyed in the fire.
In Conconully, power might be restored by the end of the week, but it could be several weeks before electricity is restored in the Tunk Mountain and Aeneas Valley areas, the district estimates.
The outages are mostly concentrated in areas burned by fire but can spread beyond the fire zone, said district spokesman Dan Boettger.
Monday dawned with thick layers of smoke in the atmosphere, rendering the air unhealthy and prompting some people to don filter masks.
“It looks like your side (Western Washington) of the mountains in the fall, you see that soupy stuff,” Isaacson said. “Try soupy with a flavor of smoke to it … you cannot fly in it or take off in that stuff.”
Isaacson said an occasional helicopter water drop can sneak out through a break in the smoke, but “for the most part, our air attack has been very much limited.”
Daniel Lyon, the firefighter injured Wednesday in the Twisp River fire that claimed the lives of three others, remains in critical condition in intensive care at Harborview Medical Center, said Susan Gregg, a hospital spokeswoman.
Another firefighter, a 47-year-old man from Okanogan County, was discharged Monday from Harborview, Gregg said.
Although a fire-weather warning is in effect for the area through Tuesday evening, Isaacson said conditions are “not the same caliber” as those that have been fueling the fire’s incredible growth over the past two weeks.
“We’re still paying attention,” he said.
Authorities are expecting the Tunk block fire, part of the Okanogan complex, to merge with the nearby North Star fire, which has already burned about 147,000 acres of the Colville Indian Reservation.
No injuries have been reported and no structures have been burned by the North Star fire.
The Chelan-area fires, which include the Wolverine area, have grown to more than 144,000 acres, and smoke continues to hang in that area, too.
Although winds are not expected to be as fierce as they were last week, a fire-weather warning was in effect Monday.
“It’s going to be just a hot, dry day,” said Brian Lawatch, a fire-information officer.
Overall, a weekend of work on the fires in relatively mild weather seems to have paid off. Lawatch said the Chelan complex is “looking pretty good.”
“The Chelan complex fire is showing a lot of cold areas — not a lot of pockets of heat, just some scattered heat and isolated heat,” he said.
The Upper Skagit complex, which threatens Seattle City Light’s Skagit Hydroelectric Project, grew to more than 4,000 acres. Firefighters Monday worked to protect the towns of Newhalem and Diablo in Whatcom County, along with the national park visitor center, the National Park Service said. Read more about the Upper Skagit complex here.