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Washington Wildfires Take Nasty Turn as Communities Step Up

The worst wildfires in Washington state history are being complicated by intense thunderstorms that could make matters even worse.

Mother Nature resisted firefighters battling the worst wildfires in Washington state history Wednesday as crews fought through thunderstorms that authorities said could make matters even worse.

The massive fire — called the Carlton Complex Fire because it's the spawn of several fires that merged into one enormous blaze — spread over a quarter-million acres of north-central Washington on Wednesday. It was 52 percent contained Wednesday night as crews made significant progress along the fire's east and south sides.

But firefighters had to be pulled off the line on the north side because of the danger posed by strong thunderstorms causing 50-mph winds and flash floods. While the rain was slowing the progress of the fire, "it takes a lot more than that," said Andrew Sandri, a spokesman for the combined state and federal incident response team.

One person has been killed and almost 500 homes have been evacuated by the massive fire, which has drawn more than 2,500 firefighters from across the country.

President Barack Obama declared an emergency to speed federal assistance to the region. The state Department of Natural Resources said the Carlton Complex Fire has cost $25 million so far; the available annual emergency fire budget is $19 million. And the fire season will keep running into October.

The fire is what crews call a "dirty burn," with flames licking at dry grass, old grass and fresh green grass. And "it's not burning completely," Sean Collins, a firefighter who's working in the Black Canyon near Yakima, told NBC station KING of Seattle.

That's not good news, because the blaze is leaving some tinder in its wake that can be reignited by a stray spark or wind shift.

Related: Firefighters Lose Family Home for Second Time in Washington Blaze

With fire crews starting to gain traction, communities were rallying to fill in with relief and assistance for families burned out of their homes.

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At Pateros High School in the community of Pateros, Principal Mike Hull was marshaling volunteers from around the state to hunt down food and supplies.

"It's the coming together of a community," Hull told NBC News in the school's gym, which he's turned into a donation superstore for anyone who's lost anything.

Besides food, blankets and clothing, the gym is full of toys, an especially heartfelt offering, "because most of those little kids know that they lost their houses," Hull said Wednesday. "They lost everything they have, and this is a chance to give them back a little bit of normalcy."

Hull said the support isn't limited to just Pateros.

"We've received so much outreach," he said. "We've got stuff coming from one side of the state, from the other side of the state to the central part of the state.

"It is an emotional thing. I see folks out front eating lunch and they are doing fine, and then 15 minutes later, they have an emotional breakdown," Hull said. "They want to be here so they can touch somebody — reach out and shake their hands or get a hug or something.

"That is just part of the community."

John Boxley and Sarah Ford of NBC News contributed to this report.