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Wildfires spread in Washington; at least one dead, 121 homes burned

by Sara Jean Green, Lynda Mapes, Joseph O’Sullivan and Paige Cornwell, Seattle Times |

Firefighters Wednesday continued to battle new and existing blazes that threatened Washingtonians on both sides of the Cascade Mountains, as the state saw its first reported death of the fire season.

This week’s fires – coming as blazes also pummel California and Oregon – have prompted evacuations in several Washington counties. They have destroyed at least 121 homes, according to a representative for the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

More damage could come. Fire conditions will remain dangerous in much of Western Washington through Thursday, along with reduced air quality.

Smoky air persisted in Seattle, and record-high temperatures were predicted for Wednesday and Thursday by the National Weather Service, with temperatures in the 90s in the warmest inland areas south of Olympia.

With the situation changing rapidly, officials Wednesday gave varying numbers for how much acreage has burned – but it continues to increase.

Roughly 500,000 acres across Washington had been torched as of Wednesday morning, according to DNR, about the same figure given Wednesday by the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center.

Earlier in the day, Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz put the figure at 587,000, and Gov. Jay Inslee said Wednesday afternoon that more than 480,000 acres were destroyed in just the last couple of days.

Inslee, Franz and fire officials pleaded for people to observe burn bans that are in effect and refrain from anything that could even cause a spark, from revving up a chain saw to target shooting or even starting a car on dry grass.

While this fire season has seen a big blowup in a short time, it hasn’t yet eclipsed the state’s historic fire season. Fires in 2015 scorched more than 1 million acres – and killed three firefighters in Okanogan County.

That region is again taking much of the punishment, including the death of a 1-year-old boy, according to the Okanogan County Sheriff’s Office. The child died while he and his parents fled the Cold Springs Fire.

The family’s abandoned and wrecked car was found Tuesday afternoon and had been burned, according to the office. Search-and-rescue crews found the family – who are from Renton, Wash. – along the riverbank of the Columbia River Wednesday; the man, 31, and woman, 26, had third-degree burns and their son was dead.

The man and woman were taken to Three Rivers Hospital in Brewster and then flown to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. They were in critical condition at the hospital Wednesday afternoon, according to spokeswoman Susan Gregg.

>> ‘It was like a blowtorch’

Eastern Washington – with its hot, dry weather and expanse of open lands – is often the site of dangerous summer blazes. But the past few days have brought that threat home to Puget Sound.

Fires in Pierce County have been burning in Sumner, Graham and Bonney Lake and destroyed several homes, according to fire officials.

Meanwhile, a blaze ignited Tuesday in Thurston County. That fire, about 20 minutes’ drive south of Olympia, burned 290 acres as of Wednesday morning according to West Thurston Fire. It came close to several homes before being stopped.

In Pierce County, just after midnight Monday, a resident called 911 and reported a transformer had exploded in the 6500 block of Meyer Road, sparking what’s now called the Sumner Grade Fire, said East Pierce County Fire Chief Bud Backer. It burned trees atop a ridge known locally as Eli Hill and now covers an estimated 800 acres. As of Wednesday afternoon, the fire was believed to be 20 percent contained, Backer said.