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Okanogan Complex Firefight Like 'Eating An Elephant'

Tom Banse
Northwest News Network
Okanogan Complex wildfire incident commander Todd Pechota likens fighting the fire to ''trying to eat an elephant one bite at a time.''

Unhealthy smoke continued to blanket large parts of central and eastern Washington state and north Idaho Wednesday. Some workers in north central Washington were sent home because the dense smoke was rated downright “hazardous.”

Limited visibility also prevented planes from landing at Pullman-Moscow Regional Airport Wednesday. Planes - including one carrying VIP guests going to the memorial service for the late Washington State University President Elson Floyd - were diverted to the Lewiston, Idaho airport. Wednesday afternoon's memorial service in Pullman was slightly delayed to accommodate the tardy arrivals.

The possibility of rain this weekend raises some hope of relief, but fire managers aren’t counting on any help from above just yet.

Okanogan incident commander Todd Pechota said in his book, it would take a “wetting rain” of at least one tenth of inch to make a difference at the largest wildfire in state history.

“I’ve said it all along. We’re trying to eat an elephant one bite at a time,” he said. “We’re getting there slowly and surely.”

Pechota said firefighters have successfully defended homes in recent days, but have a tougher time building fire lines in the backcountry.

“That unchecked fire edge is largely in very complex terrain – steep, rocky, nasty,” he said.

Pechota called the Okanogan Complex 17 percent contained, but acknowledges that’s a “conservative” number and understates how much control firefighters have achieved.

The Okanogan County Assessor's Office provided an initial damage estimate Wednesday for property losses. A spokesman said the sprawling group of wildfires has burned down 40 homes (25 single family residences and 15 mobile homes) and 48 other structures such as outbuildings.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.