A new threat – flash floods – emerges for fire-ravaged communities in Central Washington.
And no one who’s seen the destruction wrought by March’s Highway 530 mudslide in Snohomish County can disagree with these chilling words in the “flash flood watch” the weather service issued:”Rushing water and debris, including trees and rocks, can damage or destroy culverts, bridges, roads and buildings.”
The flood watch comes as 2,110 firefighters continue to battle the largest wildfire in Washington history, the Carlton complex fire in Okanogan County.
That fire grew to 250,136 acres, about 391 square miles, Tuesday and accounted for more than three-quarters of the acreage burned by seven major Washington fires. Just after 5 p.m. Tuesday it was reported 16 percent contained.
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Gov. Jay Inslee on Tuesday met with President Barack Obama – in Seattle for a fundraiser – and “gave him a briefing about how enormous this threat is to the state.”
“It’s still a growing and dangerous beast, and we have a long, long ways to go in the fire season – months before we’re out of the woods,” Inslee said.
Inslee said he expected the federal government to declare an emergency, allowing assistance to help restore power to burned-out areas. But that requires a comprehensive accounting of damage, which will take days, he said. At a fundraiser later, Obama said he’d spoken with his Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, director about an emergency declaration and restoring power to the affected areas.
The weather service’s flood watch was issued as forecasts called for widespread thunderstorms Wednesday spreading across Central Washington.
The storms are expected to produce a band of moderate to heavy rainfall over the east slopes of the Northern Cascades.
It takes as little as 10 minutes, the weather service advisory noted, for heavy rain to trigger a flash flood on a slope that has become unstable because fire burned away its vegetation.
Travelers in the area are urged to use caution.
“Water can be as bad as fire if you’re in the wrong place,” Inslee said.
The watch is in effect through Wednesday evening. In addition to potential flooding, the anticipated thunderstorms carry the possibility of lightning-caused fires.
Tuesday morning, state transportation workers reopened Highway 20 east of Twisp, which had been closed by fire since Thursday night.
Still unknown is how long it will take to restore power to Okanogan County communities, particularly those in the Methow Valley.
Don Peterson, spokesman for the multiagency team fighting the Carlton complex fire, said the fire destroyed 80 utility poles on Highway 20 toward Loup Loup Pass.
A flash-flood watch means conditions may develop that lead to flash flooding or debris flow, the weather service said.
“Flash flooding and debris flow paths are unpredictable and can affect locations that are miles away from a burned area,” the weather service warned.