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A dozen Washington homes burn in aggressive West Coast wildfire season

By Victoria Cavaliere

SEATTLE (Reuters) - A newly sparked wildfire was burning unchecked on Monday in central Washington state, charring about a dozen homes and threatening wide evacuations as crews scrambled to contain the blaze in an unusually destructive fire season on the U.S. West Coast.

The Snag Canyon fire was burning about 10 miles (16 km) northeast of the city of Ellensburg, east of the Cascade mountains, home to about 18,000 people and Central Washington University, fire officials said.

"Right now the fire seems to be moving in a northeasterly direction toward rangeland, not the city," said Rose Schriner, a spokeswoman with the Kittitas County Emergency Operations Center. "We are hoping that continues to be the case."

Evacuation orders were in effect Monday for about 180 homes and more could be at risk, she said.

At least 12 dwellings have already been destroyed since the fire was sparked by lightning on Saturday. The size of the blaze was still being determined.

Dozens of fires are raging across California, Oregon and Washington, many triggered by lightening and spreading rapidly through parched forest and vegetation as the West Coast endures years of drought and warmer-than-average winters.

California was suffering its worst drought on record while swaths of Oregon and Washington were seeing abnormally dry conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

One of the largest fires currently raging, the Oregon Gulch blaze, was 20 percent contained on Monday as it spread over 36,000 acres (15,000 hectares) straddling the Oregon and California border, the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center said.

Evacuation orders were in effect for about 40 homes with another 140 threatened on both sides of the border, officials said.

California, Oregon and Washington have declared states of emergency to deal with the wildfires, as experts warn that this fire season, which runs from mid-May to mid-October, could be one of the worst on record.

"Basically our fire season never ended last year," said Dennis Mathisen of California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

"It's already been very active this year, and this activity in Oregon Gulch blaze further illustrates that," he said.

Last month, the Carlton Complex blaze, the largest in Washington's history, destroyed about 300 homes and gutted entire towns in the Methow Valley near the Cascade range. The fire cost about $25 million to fight, according to the Washington Department of Natural Resources.

Washington state's yearly budget for battling wildfires is about $20 million.

(Reporting by Victoria Cavaliere; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Marguerita Choy)

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