Firefighters say they've turned the corner on controlling Washington state's largest-ever wildfire, the 250,000-acre Carlton Complex east of Seattle.
The fire is about 40 miles long and now 67 percent contained. Fire managers on Monday released a map showing the fire's growth since it began as four separate lightning-sparked blazes on July 14. The map shows how those four burns merged to become the Carlton Complex on July 20, running over major roads and across canyons.
The map shows how the fire began in four distinct places – noted with light blue – and then spread rapidly across the landscape, as shown in the light and then dark green. The perimeter then grew more slowly (those are the yellow areas), and the most recently burned areas are shown in red.
The fire has destroyed at least 312 homes in the largely rural area about 200 miles east of Seattle, and is blamed for the death of a man trying to protect his home. At its peak, it sent a huge plume of smoke drifting east across the United States.
The new progression map also shows a large section in the fire's center that didn't burn. Buist said a private citizen who owns the eastern side of that area used heavy equipment to create fire breaks to protect his property. U.S. Forest Service fire mitigation efforts on the western end of the donut hole helped limit the fire's spread in that area, Buist said. Mitigation generally entails thinning out forests and removing underbrush, making it harder for a fire to gain intensity.
The map shows the fire jumping from about 44,000 acres on acres in the afternoon of July 17 to about 215,000 acres the next day, and then to 237,000 acres by July 19 before its growth began to slow. The rapid increase in size was due to both fire growth and more accurate mapping.
Large wildfires can create their own weather, with huge columns of hot air pulling burning embers and pine cones high into the sky before spitting them out ahead of the main burn area. Those spot fires helped main fire advance quickly through the rugged, forested terrain, Buist said.
"It was very, very intense," he said. "We've probably turned the corner, but there's a ton of work to be done. There will be people and equipment on the ground here for weeks. It's tough country."
Fire-fighting officials say mega fires like the Carleton Complex and the huge Buzzard Complex fire burning in eastern Oregon are now becoming the norm. Wildfires are burning hotter and fire seasons are now 70 days longer than they were 15 years ago.