Crews gain ground on Washington state wildfire as residents assess damage

SEATTLE Thu Jul 24, 2014 3:52pm EDT

1 of 3. Scorched trees are pictured after being burned by the Carlton Complex Fire near Malott, Washington July 20, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/David Ryder

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SEATTLE (Reuters) - Crews battling the largest wildfire in Washington state's history had more than half the 10-day-old blaze contained on Thursday as displaced residents began assessing damage in a dozen fire-ravaged communities.

The 250,000-acre Carlton Complex fire east of the Cascade Mountains was 52 percent contained after a strong rainstorm on Wednesday helped stop the spread of flames, fire officials said.

"Yesterday's moisture along with aggressive suppression efforts has jumped up containment percentages considerably," the Carlton Complex Incident Management Team said in a statement. "The weather respite will allow resources to make advances in the next few days."

Evacuation orders were still in effect in two rural communities, while residents of about 10 cities and towns in the Methow Valley, 120 miles northeast of Seattle, began returning home to survey damage and begin cleanup.

"There's a big emotional side to this effort," said Seth Barnes, a fire spokesman."People have to come back home and find what there is to salvage."

Between 150 and 200 homes and dwellings have been destroyed in the blaze, one of about 20 burning in parched forests from California to Idaho. The Washington state fire was of special concern to emergency teams because it scorched a path through a well-populated region.

One of the hardest-hit towns, Pateros, with about 650 residents, was fully evacuated during the height of the fire and more than 40 homes were destroyed, according to the Okanogan County Sheriff's Office.

The wind-driven flames also caused extensive damage to the town and left returning residents without electricity.

About 7,000 homes and businesses across the region were without power on Thursday, and full restoration could take weeks, fire officials said.

As 2,100 firefighters continued suppression efforts in Washington state, a wind-driven wildfire in Colorado ballooned to 20,000 acres overnight, destroying two outbuildings, injuring a firefighter and killing at least three cows, fire managers said.

The so-called Alkali fire erupted on Wednesday afternoon, and was burning on private and public land about 14 miles north of the town of Craig, said Lynn Barclay, spokeswoman for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. 

Flames are threatening some natural gas pipelines in the area, Barclay said, adding that about 70 firefighters were on the scene. One firefighter was treated for minor smoke inhalation.

(Reporting by Victoria Cavaliere in Seattle and Keith Coffman in Denver; Editing by Peter Cooney)

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