SPOKANE, Wash. - Thunderstorms on Wednesday dumped hail and heavy rain on the largest on the largest wildfire in the state's history, but officials said it wouldn't be enough to extinguish the flames.
"It takes a lot more than that," said Andrew Sandri, spokesman for the Carlton Complex of fires. "It by no means puts this fire out."
Penny-sized hail rained on Winthrop and 50 mph winds were whipped through Twisp, prompting Washington State Patrol to caution drivers traveling through the area.
Due to the intense thunderstorm activity, all firefighters in the Carlton Zone (north) were pulled off the line for safety reasons.
A flash flood warning was in effect until 7:15 p.m. for central Chelan County and a flash flood watch was in effect through the evening for the east slopes of the Northern Cascades, Okanogan Valley and Wenatchee area.
A mudslide was reported on Entiat River Road at milepost 12.
The wildfire stands at more than 250,000 acres and is being fought by about 2,500 people, Sandri said.
The rain will certainly help firefighters make progress, however, he said. "Today we have not seen active fire behavior," Sandri said.
But the weather also produced more than 20,000 lightning strikes that resulted in at least eight new small fires in Washington.
The fire remains at 16 percent contained, as crews concentrate on strengthening existing fire lines, Sandri said.
The fire has burned about 150 homes and is blamed for one death after a man died of a heart attack while hauling water and digging a fire line to protect his home.
Meanwhile, President Barack Obama on Wednesday declared a state of emergency in Washington. The declaration authorized the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to coordinate disaster relief and help state and local agencies with equipment and resources.
"These additional resources will significantly help our efforts to restore power to thousands of people affected by these fires," Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee said. "I appreciate his prompt response and partnership in helping our state."
Inslee spoke with the president during his visit to the state Tuesday.
The governor also requested additional federal resources, including assistance from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to help with assessment, planning and installation of emergency power generators to restore power to facilities that are critical to the well-being of fire-damaged communities. These include water and wastewater treatment systems and other municipal facilities.
Inslee declared a state of emergency on July 15 in the 20 counties of eastern Washington as a result of wildfires. The governor amended the proclamation on Monday to include a temporary outdoor burn ban in that part of the state. The ban is effective through Friday.
Speaking at a fundraiser Tuesday in Seattle, Obama said the wildfire, along with other blazes in the West, can be attributed to climate change.
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 state's largest recorded forest fire, according to HistoryLink.org, an online resource of Washington state history.
The Wenatchee World reported Wednesday that two area residents were arrested on suspicion of arson this weekend, accused of setting two separate back burns that got out of control, with one of them almost trapping a fire crew in a canyon. The back burns were lighted by men trying to save property, Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers said. Back burns are secondary fires lit on purpose to burn fuels in the path of an oncoming fire.
The wildfires have reduced tourism along the 440-mile Cascade Loop Scenic Highway. But members of the Cascade Loop Association hope that tourists will return when the fires are out.
"Tourism is a vital economic driver in the region, and we are optimistic that the return of leisure travelers will help stimulate recovery," said Annette Pitts, executive director of the Cascade Loop Association.