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Washington fire far from contained, but officials ‘optimistic’

By Kim Murphy, Los Angeles Times –

SEATTLE — Slightly cooler temperatures and decreasing winds have made firefighters “cautiously optimistic” they can begin to make gains on a wildfire that is now covering 44 square miles in central Washington state, incident commander Rex Reed told reporters Wednesday.

Though only 10 percent of the raging grassland and foothills fire was contained Wednesday morning, the improving conditions raised hopes that firefighters might be able to get a perimeter around up to a quarter of it by day’s end, Reed said.

“The key part for us right now is we don’t need any more fires on the ground,” he said at an earlier briefing, noting the fire that started at a construction site at the Taylor Bridge on Tuesday had been one of three reported in a 90-minute span.

“We need folks to be extremely careful,” he said.

A total of 60 structures have been lost so far to the blaze, with up to 450 people evacuated from their homes as fire still threatens areas in the Hidden Valley and Sunlight Waters subdivisions east of Cle Elum, as well as in Ellensburg and Bettas Valley.

But the fast-moving fire already has killed hundreds of animals, and perhaps thousands, most of them cattle, officials said. About 300 animals — turkeys, alpacas, rabbits, donkeys, cattle, pigs and sheep among them — have been checked into a shelter set up at the Kittitas County Fairgrounds.

“One thing is, this is really a community that really helps each other. It does your heart good when you’re out there watching the community folks come in, neighbors helping neighbors,” Reed said.

Matt Comisky, media spokesman for the fire, told the Los Angeles Times that firefighters were able to keep the blaze from spreading during the night.

“Fire activity was generally light last night, with most activity within the fire perimeter,” he said. “Today, we’ve had some cooler temperatures, the humidity’s gone up, and we’ve had slightly lower wind, so that’s allowed us to get a little better handle on the fire.”

Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire has declared a state of emergency for Kittitas and Yakima counties, allowing the use of state resources, including National Guard helicopters. Comisky said six helicopters are working the blaze, along with two air tankers, one of them from Canada.

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