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OKANOGAN, Wash. – As crews made inroads against massive fires burning in north-central Washington some people began to assess just how damaging the huge blazes have been.
Steve Surgeon, a mechanic and scrap-metal seller, lost everything he owns except for his home on the outskirts of Okanogan. He stayed in place as the fire raced over a ridge and barreled down toward his house, flames lapping just feet from his back porch.
"I'm alive," he said with a sigh Sunday. "I shouldn't be, but I am — and that's what matters."
The Okanogan Complex of wildfires on Sunday measured about 374 square miles and was estimated to be about 10 percent contained, fire spokesman Dan Omdal said. More than 1,000 people were fighting the blazes.
Sixteen large wildfires are burning across central and eastern Washington, covering more than 920 square miles. More than 200 homes have been destroyed, and more than 12,000 homes and thousands of other structures remain threatened.
The blazes were among several large fires burning across the West, taxing firefighting resources and prompting officials to seek help from other states and even abroad. Officials said Australia and New Zealand are sending firefighters to help battle the western blazes.
One of the latest western blazes was a potentially destructive fire that erupted Sunday afternoon in California's San Bernardino Mountains. The U.S. Forest Service said the fire near Snow Summit Ski Resort south of Big Bear Lake has forced evacuation orders for about 400 homes. By late Sunday, the blaze had chewed through about 100 acres of terrain and was 25 percent contained.
In Washington, a new firefighting mobilization center is being set up at Fairchild Air Force Base near Spokane to help fight wildfires in the state. The base will be the staging area for 20 large fire engines and 10 water takers and will be run by a team from San Diego. The engines are coming from Utah, Nevada, Arizona and Colorado, officials said.
At Surgeon's property, heaps of twisted and charred metal litter his land where the fire burned through. Surgeon estimates he lost more than $100,000 worth of property, including his shop, his motorcycle, several cars, a travel trailer and all of his tools.
"But I have my life and I have my home," he said. "Everything else can be replaced."
Local officials have downgraded some evacuation notices, allowing some people to return to their homes. Thousands still remain under evacuation notices.
Sarah Miller, a spokeswoman with Okanogan County Emergency Management, said residents have been warned to stay ready to leave at any time.
Suzanne Flory, spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service, said there's a worry that once the smoke lifts and humidity drops the rising heat will cause the fires to flare up.
Flory said they would not know until perhaps early Monday how much the fire had grown on Sunday, but as of late afternoon, fire activity had been relatively quiet. Visibility and air quality improved Sunday.
The good news for Sunday was that less smoke means restrictions on air travel will be lifted and more fire tankers can drop water and chemical retardant, Flory said.
Air quality, which has been dangerously bad, will also improve when the smoke cloud lifts, but firefighters won't be able to take a breather. "We tell firefighters, if you see blue sky, heads up," Flory said.
Three firefighters were killed battling blazes near Twisp, Washington, on Wednesday. An injured firefighter remains in critical condition at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.
On Sunday evening, the state Department of Health said that should nearby wildfires reach the site of a now-defunct uranium mine in Stevens County in eastern Washington, the smoke won't be any more toxic than the standard smoke from a wildfire.
In an announcement, the department said that radioactive materials at the Midnight Mine, which is about three miles northwest of Wellpinit on the Spokane Reservation, "won't exacerbate the dangers of wildfire smoke if the fires overtake the site as the naturally occurring radioactive material stays in its original rock form and does not burn."
Nevertheless, the department said, people in the area should take the same precautions as they would with any other kind of smoky air.
Blankinship reported from Seattle.