The largest wildfire in Washington state’s history is now 52 percent contained after powerful storms swept through the area on Wednesday, bringing heavy rain and even hail.
But now, a new threat has emerged, even as the massive fire begins to come under control — floods and landslides. On Wednesday firefighters battling the Carlton Complex blaze had to be pulled out of the area after the National Weather Service issued a flash flood watch.
According to the warning, “It takes as little as 10 minutes of heavy rain to cause flash flooding and debris flows in and below areas affected by wildfires. Rain runs off almost instantly from burned soils, causing creeks and drainages to flood at a much faster rate than normal.”
The Carlton Complex fire, which grew from four separate lightning strikes on July 14, has scorched over 400 square miles of forest in the state, leaving vast areas denuded of the vital vegetation and tree roots that hold soil in place and help absorb water.
“The cooler temperatures and the higher relative humidities will allow the firefighters to get in and get a better handle on the fire,” Katie Santini, spokeswoman for the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center, told the LA Times. “But it brings in the possibility of flash floods and makes travel around the fire more difficult.”
Tens of thousands of people lost power during the storm , which saw winds from 50 to 70 mph. The weather service reported more than 5,500 lightning strikes in Eastern Washington and North Idaho.
“I thought we were in a tornado,” Krystle Schneider, who lives in Northwest Spokane, told the Spokesman-Review.
In central Washington, flash floods were reported along the Entiat River in a burned out area. The Spokesman-Review reported that the flood waters brought down debris at mile 11 at the Entiat River and boulders were dislodged during a storm near Tommy Creek
President Obama has asked Congress for $615 million in emergency spending to fight Western wildfires. Speaking at a fundraiser earlier this week in Seattle, he noted that spending on fires has been steadily increasing and made the link between the increased fire activity and climate change. The cost of fighting U.S. wildfires has exceeded $1 billion every year since 2000. Last year, the price tag was $1.7 billion. Twenty-five California Democrats recently signed a letter urging House and Senate members to take action on addressing firefighting funding shortfalls.
“A lot of it has to do with drought, a lot of it has to do with changing precipitation patterns and a lot of that has to do with climate change,” Obama said.
Late Tuesday, Obama signed an emergency declaration that authorizes the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Homeland Security to coordinate disaster relief for Washington state.