T HE M ETHOW VALLEY ’S SUMMER OF DISASTER
PERSONAL ECONOMIC PATH TO STORIES IMPACTS R ECOVERY A supplement to the Methow Valley News
J. Bart Bradshaw CERTIFIED PUBLIC ACCOUNTANT, PLLC
FIRE & TAXES
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About Trial By Fire Trial By Fire was conceived in the summer of 2014 during a conversation I had at a well-attended community meeting in the Winthrop Barn to discuss post-fire recovery efforts, short-term and long-term. My conversation with a friend in the chair next to me led to a discussion of all the important stories that could — and should — be told about what the Methow Valley and its residents endured. What would you do, if you could? my friend asked. And that got the wheels turning. Before long I had the outline for a magazine-style publication that would chronicle the summer of 2014 by examining the economic, environmental and emotional tolls the fires and floods took on the valley, with detail, context and helpful information. But that was not a project we could take on without some help. Through an incredibly generous grant from the Seattle-based Campion Foundation — created by valley residents Tom and Sonya Campion — in coordination with the Community Foundation of North Central Washington, we were able to underwrite the production costs of Trial By Fire. Without the support and assistance of both foundations, we would not have had the resources to take on such an ambitious project. It has been a community effort. Many of you contributed stories about your experiences, along with poems and songs, or offered photographs. Many others were sources for our staff-written articles, and graciously gave their time for numerous interviews. And we are grateful beyond description for the advertising support that many businesses and organizations provided. Finally, I can’t neglect to mention the extraordinary effort, professionalism and care the Methow Valley News staff put into the production of Trial By Fire. Each one of them had a vital role. We intend Trial By Fire to be a keepsake that will have an impact for some time to come. And it won’t be the end of the story. Don Nelson Publisher/Editor
TRIAL BY FIRE
FIRE 3 About Trial By Fire 6 A complicated relationship
Responses to The Fire were both personal and community-wide
9 19 21
Kudos, criticism and questions
Trying to make sense of what happened when 420 square miles burned
Making peace with dead trees
The charred landscape is the foundation for new habitat
A natural process
Wildlife adaptation is part of fire recovery
24 Newsgathering in a disaster
How the Methow Valley News kept information coming, online and in print
Fanning the flames
Climate change is clearly linked to larger, fiercer wildfires
29 From the ground up
Home rebuilding efforts will begin in earnest next spring
The scorched landscape will make a dramatic comeback
39 After the fire: taking stock 40 Firewise and firestorms
In the intensity of the fire, some areas proved resilient
43 The risk factors: assess and prepare 44 Plans to mend breaks in communications
46 The bottom line bottoms out
The fires’ economic impacts were profound, if difficult to measure
48 Fire by the numbers 50 The summer of 2014: a timeline 52 Burned bear becomes worldwide celebrity
54 Hauling out the scrap
Manthy Salcido has cleared hundreds of tons of burned metal
An interrupted vacation
Joe and Pamela Ahl hustled back home when the flames threatened Amy’s Manor
Watching from a distance By Pen Barnes
Driving the burn
The dream becomes a nightmare
By Raleigh Bowden By Bill Bauer
59 Another iconic figure claimed by the fire
In memory of Dan Gebbers
Losing our ‘neighbor on a tractor’ By Joanna Bastian
64 Stories of resilience By Maggie Coon
64 Narrow escape
Rick Hale and Teri Jenkins left their home seconds ahead of the flames
66 Saved by friends and neighbors By Julie Johnson
60 How preparation, brave firefighters 67 and a bit of luck saved our home By Ken Bevis
The longest ride
A never-ending night
By Shelley L. Block Pateros neighbors join forces to save homes
One firefighter’s long day By Courtney Creighton
A great summer turns hellish By Michael “Yogi” Martin
Coming back Don and Pat Owens are rebuilding from the rubble of their Finley Canyon home
Fire, floods and friends By Ginger Reddington
Contributors Don Nelson
is publisher and editor of the Methow Valley News.
is a Methow Valley News reporter.
is a Methow Valley News reporter.
is a Methow Valley News columnist.
Photo by Steve Mitchell
Along with community members David Asia, Pen Barnes, Bill Bauer, Ken Bevis, Shelley Block, Raleigh Bowden, Ryan Brennan, Maggie Coon, Courtney Creighton, Salyna Gracie, Tamara (Dicus) Hillman, Julie Johnson, Christine Kendall, Jack Kienast, John Marshall, Michael “Yogi” Martin, Steve Mitchell, Vicki Orford, Sam Owen, Craig Peterson Shannon Huffman Polson, Ginger and Don Reddington, Julie Tate-Libby, Buddy Thomas, Janet Verkuyl and Betty Wagoner.
74 76 77 78 78 79
Standing their ground Brian Varrelman, with friends and family, faced down the firestorm
Staying on the land For Richard Wipple and his family, rebuilding is the only option
Don Nelson | publisher/editor
As close as it gets
Darla Hussey | design
By Vicki Orford
Laurelle Walsh | proofreader
Three days against the flames Larry Riggins and Wayne Umberger went sleepless to save their homes
Rebecca Walker | office manager
Tyson Kellie | advertising associate
38 days in fire season
Sheila Ward | advertising associate
By Shannon Huffman Polson
Dana Sphar | ad design/production
Community pitches in to help owners of slide-damaged home
Michael Zoretic found his home and friends unharmed
Wildfire, up close and too personal
Sifting for treasure
A ‘tinder’ muse
Short season Amy Wu scrambled to salvage business at her Rest Awhile Country Market
Grief, then relief
By Betty Wagoner
Rained out Richard and Linda Davis escaped the flames, but couldn’t avoid the mudslides
By Mike Maltais
A publication of the Methow Valley News P.O. Box 97, 101 N. Glover St., Twisp, WA 98856 509.997.7011 • fax 509.997.3277 www.methowvalleynews.com firstname.lastname@example.org
Poetry inspired by the summer of 2014
Directory of advertisers
Cover photo by Jack Kienast. For more information on photo, see page 97
When the power went out, local residents immediately began coordinating help. Here, a truckload of generators on loan from individuals in the Spokane area is delivered. photo bY darla husseY
A complicated relationship Responses to The Fire were both personal and community-wide By Don Nelson
TRIAL BY FIRE
HE Fire. With a capital “F,” because it had first and middle names — Carlton Complex — as if it had assumed a quasi-human identity. Indeed, the Carlton Complex Fire was by turns a petulant child, a raging bully, a mesmerizing monster at night, a wind-driven deviant by day. It was passive-aggressive, obsessivecompulsive, capricious, cranky, and
would not be reasoned with. By anthropomorphizing The Fire, we exorcised our human emotions — we could hate it, swear at it, fear it, cajole, plead, admonish — even exult when it left our homes and selves unscathed. But none of us escaped. Each of us falls somewhere on the trauma spectrum. We all lost something, if only the expectation that some mystical
aura protected the Methow Valley from the worst of the worst. We’ll never feel as assured again. But we will be better prepared. The Carlton Complex was unsparing in its own capricious way. It devoured whatever it encountered — trees, brush, structures, wildlife. If only rocks and dirt were in its way, it burned the rocks and dirt, as though anything marginally A publication of the Methow Valley News
organic would do as fuel. It moved with devastating resolve, brusque and relentless, daring us to stand in its way, and we dared not. The Carlton Complex began life as several fires, each with its own character, each staking out its own territory and keeping us on edge wondering about its intent. The fires matured with startling force, like teenagers who get a hormonal growth spurt, and then merged like urban gang members consolidating their turf. The Fire spawned destructive offspring: the Rising Eagle Road Fire, human-caused but born in the same explosive conditions, and later the floods that tore through fire-ravaged canyons and in some places swept away what the fire had somehow spared. The Fire assaulted all our senses. It was in our face, over our heads, across our roads, through our properties, taunting us from the ridgelines, hovering in the hills around Twisp and Winthrop. We watched, because we couldn’t help but be drawn in by the pure spectator appeal, and because much of the time we couldn’t do much else. It had a voice, depending on its mood ... a staccato crackle, a basso profundo moan, an eerie howl like a ghost in a Halloween haunted house. It left an acrid pall of smoke, a punky, wet-campfire miasma that could not be easily breathed or seen through, and would not be dislodged except by the kind of wind that uproots trees. Some of us stood our ground, wisely or unwisely, with hoses, shovels and backhoes. Others packed up quickly, darting from house to car with whatever we could carry and thought should or could be saved, figuring out what to do with the horses and dogs, until someone — a firefighter, a neighbor, some feral inner voice — told us to get the hell out of there. “Incinerated” isn’t inadequate to the task of characterizing the loss. Homes, keepsakes, clothes, furnishings, outbuildings, fences, orchards, pets — here, and then not. Many of us went from a well-defined life to an unfathomable void, wearing someone else’s clothes, staying in a borrowed space, grateful for the gift of life, knowing that the inevitable aftershock of desolation was coming sooner or later, that the emotional trap door we were standing on was www.MethowValleyNews.com
going to spring. The Fire created its own community. It drew an occupying force to the valley: thousands of firefighters, camping out in a colorful jumble of tents and trucks. They came from Washington and Idaho and Oregon and Utah and North Dakota, to a place they probably knew little about. When we saw them in town, they were dirty, smoky, tired, trolling through Hank’s Harvest Foods or Evergreen IGA looking for snacks, drinks, a few moments in a relatively safe and sane space; then a shower, a place to do laundry, a spot where their cell phones might work. We said hello, asked them where they were from, thanked them. And meant it. In the aftermath, no one drives through the burned areas without feeling the power of something primal. We confront the human conceit that we are the masters of our environment. We’ve been out of the caves for tens of thousands of years and we still can’t control fire. We count it as miraculous that no one died as a direct result of the fires, floods and storms, but we marvel at the miracle
the fires slashed through, the power went out, the cell phones stopped working and the floods and the road closures and the storms just kept pounding the valley, the thing that we understood in the moment, and that we will remember most vividly, is that people were doing stuff. There was constant motion. Food, clothing, furnishings, lodging, tools, transportation, child care, moral support — it all poured forth like a salve slathered over a burn, spontaneously and selflessly. The kindness, generosity, strength, unity, sacrifice, the palpable care of a community — all of it is priceless, but none of it would help any one of us easily answer the simplest of well-meant questions: How are you doing? And who would blame us for answering, “compared to what?” But we’re more polite than that, more gracious. And more resolved. Our world has gone from black to pale green to white as the seasons progress. Who knows what spring will bring? Whatever it is, the valley will stand together, Methow Strong. It’s not just a slogan. ❖
as if it were an oddity as opposed to a preternatural blessing. Because we need to put some kind of human construct on nature’s destructive behavior, we call what comes afterward a healing, a new cycle of life, a natural progression, as flora and fauna (and that includes humans) begin to reclaim the scorched remains of their habitat — redefining it as they repopulate it. All of this falls under the rubric of recovery, an open-ended concept with many meanings. It’s a convenient, even comfortable place to occupy now that winter has cooled the last embers. Still, months later, no matter what the opening topic, any conversation with locals defaults to The Fire. We’ll never run out of things to say about it, because we’ll never be done dealing with its consequences. Fifty years from now, people will be talking about The Fire in the same way Methow Valley old-timers talk about the flood of 1948. This has always been a community that looks to itself for support and spiritual sustenance. We’re grateful for the world’s help, but we aren’t going to sit around waiting for it. As
Emotional Phases of Disaster Emotional Highs
Reconstruction A New Beginning
Heroic Pre-Disaster Warning
Working Through Grief
Coming to Terms
Anniversary Reactions Emotional Lows
Trigger Events Up to One Year
Zunin/meYers, as cited in TRAINING MANUAL FOR MENTAL HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICE WORKERS IN MAJOR DISASTERS, u.s. department of health and human services (2000). TRIAL BY FIRE
Massive plumes, such as this one looming over Twisp on July 17, can reach more than 25,000 feet into the air and spit out burning debris up to a mile from the plume, spreading the fire in any direction. photo bY marcY stamper 8
TRIAL BY FIRE
A publication of the Methow Valley News
Kudos, criticism and questions Trying to make sense of what happened when 420 square miles burned By Marcy Stamper
FTER the largest wildfire in Washington history, the loss of more than 300 homes, miles of public infrastructure, livestock and wildlife habitat — an estimated $65 million in damages — questions about whether some of the destruction could have been prevented were inevitable. We know what went right — there were no deaths and only minor injuries directly attributed to the fire, and many homes were saved by the combined efforts of firefighters and a phalanx of equipment, from bulldozers to a DC-10 loaded with retardant. At the height of the fire, there were 3,142 people combating it in a single day. But there has also been considerable second-guessing about how the fire was fought and whether some of that devastation could have been prevented or minimized. It took just over a week for the fire to attain its full size, a staggering 420 square miles. It will doubtless take years to get a clearer sense of how and why that happened. Efforts to reconstruct those chaotic and frightening weeks in July and August provide insights and glimpses into the challenges of responding to such a fast-moving blaze, but no definitive account has emerged. What has emerged — from interviews with people who fought the fire and who have studied it, and from records of fire-suppression efforts — uncovers common themes but also many unique situations. Some analysts say that the dry, overgrown fuels and severe weather www.MethowValleyNews.com
combined into a fire that could not have been controlled, no matter how many firefighters, planes and other resources were devoted to it. Others blame the fire’s devastation on the time it took to get adequate resources here to fight the fire. Some people point to an overall scarcity of fire resources and inadequate funding for firefighting and forest management. The incident logs for the four fires that started July 14 indicate a crippling shortage of firefighters and air resources during the first few days. Entries such as “calling for rotor — none available” and “all aircraft is tied up on a much larger fire, need you to do what you can” are common. Some people condemn the failure to draw on the knowledge and experience of local people about how to combat fires in their own backyard, or the limited training and inexperience of some fire crews. Some say
equipment. Some who work in that bureaucracy say the state’s system for firefighting is itself dysfunctional. Then there are the inherent contradictions of firefighting. In the end, wildfire is a force of nature and, as one veteran firefighter put it, “It’s safer than it was, but we protect fewer homes. That needs to be accepted as the price we pay for safer firefighting.”
The first few days: many fires, few resources On Monday, July 14, there were 2,443 lightning strikes recorded in a 12-hour period in northeastern Washington, igniting numerous fires in the Methow Valley and elsewhere. That day fire crews from the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and local engines from Okanogan County Fire District 6 were grappling with four fires — on Texas Creek (the Stokes Road Fire),
There’s a big difference between being good and being lucky. Both parties will get the job done. But doing the job well is doing it safely and getting the job done. A lot of us have been lucky. — Charlie Curtis, a firefighter with 20 years’ experience the rigidity of the incident command system kept firefighters from acting because they don’t have the independence to exercise their own judgment. Some indict a preoccupation with avoiding liability, particularly since the fatal Thirtymile Fire of 2001. Still others contend that bureaucratic regulations delayed crews or
where half a dozen homes were threatened; Gold Creek (the Golden Hike Fire), where there were also homes at risk; French Creek; and on the eastern hills between Winthrop and Twisp, near a campground but further from homes or other structures (the Cougar Flat Fire). The U.S. Forest Service was fighting another fire on federal land near Cougar Flat.
The incident cards from the interagency communications center show that fire crews had responded to the dispatch calls for all four fires between 12:30 and 4:30 p.m. on Monday, and that the first crews arrived at Texas Creek at 1:40 p.m., at Gold Creek at 5:14 p.m., and at Cougar Flat at 6:47 p.m. The first entry for crews on scene at French Creek is not until the following day at 2:19 p.m. The majority of resources were devoted to Texas Creek on the first day. At 2 p.m., the incident commander asked for the nearest helicopter, saying, “We need some bucket work on it ASAP.” Bucket drops began about two hours later and a plane from Canada was at work by 5:30 p.m. Crews worked at Texas Creek overnight and had completed a bulldozer line around the fire by 2 a.m., but the dispatch logs show how short-lived progress can be in severe conditions. At 1:17 p.m. on Tuesday the northeast corner had “blown out,” according to the log. Residents of seven homes were told to evacuate. There were 127 people, air tankers and an air attack plane fighting the fire on Texas Creek on Tuesday. A Washington incident management team arrived later that day to take over management of the fires on Texas Creek and nearby Gold Creek. The incident commander at Gold Creek also wanted helicopters on Monday evening “to knock some of the heat out of it,” but the logs show he was told, “Negative, all aircraft is tied up on a much larger fire, need you to do what you can.” The dispatch tape shows that everyone was running out of people, with crews coming from every fire district in Okanogan County, from neighboring counties and from the Colville Tribes, according to Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers. The situation at French Creek was also dire. Fires were called in on Monday but the first report of crews on scene was not until Tuesday afternoon. On Wednesday morning (July 16), a 20-person crew was headed to French Creek, but by 10:30 a.m., the “column over French TRIAL BY FIRE
Creek … is turning into a plume. We need to make them aware if we are getting a plume this early, we need to be heads up about safety and potential,” according to the incident log. One hour later, it reads, “All French Creek resources are pulling out. If they don’t they will be trapped.” Incident commanders also sought help on Wednesday morning with structure protection on Cow Creek, a little north of French Creek, but were informed by dispatchers, “You have all we have to give. If you can find someone local that might be all you can get additional.” At 11:30 a.m., the outlook was also grim on Texas Creek, with a mandatory evacuation for all residents there. “If we can not hold the structures we are going to right [sic] it off. Just to clarify, [it’s burning] all the way up to Texas Creek, and we need to get people out of there.” A few hours later, the fire burned down to Highway 153, closing the road on and off for the next few days. At 5 p.m. on Wednesday, the logs show how desperate everyone was: “We have a situation up here on
Texas Creek. The fire is down on a bunch of structures and the dist [fire district] is out of trucks.”
Charlie Curtis was the incident commander with the first engine to respond at Cougar Flat on Monday, July 14. Curtis, a firefighter with 20 years of experience with the U.S. Forest Service, was in his first season working for DNR, leading an engine assigned to initial attack. When Curtis arrived to hike up to Cougar Flat at around 4:30 p.m., two members of the public had already dug a fire line around the blaze, which was three-quarters of an acre and burning in heavy, dead fuels, said Curtis. Before hiking up to the fire, Curtis flagged the route to the steep, rocky site so that two additional crews from western Washington, already stationed in the area, could find their way. The line around the fire had halted its forward spread, said Curtis. After the two civilians left, he and the other firefighters spent several hours
improving the line and mopping up — creating a 10-foot cold perimeter — and left around 11 p.m., according to the duty officer’s records. The logs describe the fire as 100 percent contained and 50 percent mopped up when Curtis and his crew left. Curtis told the dispatchers he was confident the line would hold overnight and was sent to Texas Creek to help with structure protection on the Stokes Road Fire. But while Curtis and his crew were having dinner, they were told to go home instead so they would be available at 6 a.m. the following day. (Firefighters are required to have a work-to-rest ratio of 2-to-1; for every 16 hours worked, they must get eight hours of rest.) Curtis had had a long day — before going to Cougar Flat, he had already responded to a lightning strike on Finley Canyon. Curtis said it is not uncommon to handle three initial attacks in a single day, moving from one fire to another as each is contained. Curtis was sent to the Golden Hike Fire near Gold Creek on Tuesday (July 15), and another engine was
dispatched to Cougar Flat. The incident log for Tuesday indicates that the new crew arrived at Cougar Flat at 11:30 a.m. and that the fire “mostly stayed within footprint from last night, but we do have a couple logs that rolled out.” They said they had “lots of mop up to do” around trees and rock scree and “will be here most of the day.” But that afternoon, a little after 4 p.m., the fire escaped and the incident commander requested extra help. “The fire has run all the way up and we aren’t going to catch it. It is going to take heavy air and crews to get this one,” according to the log. At 5 p.m., the Cougar Flat Fire had grown to 5 or 10 acres, according to the log, which reads, “Getting some large boulders rolling downhill, we are going to back out and get down into flatter ground, to protect against spot fires behind us. Would like to order a heavy air tanker and some jumpers.” They got some bucket drops just 15 minutes later, but didn’t have use of the helicopter for long. The entry around 6 p.m. reads, “The rotor is
Fire managers struggled to find enough firefighters and helicopters to combat all the fires blazing at once—and still have some available to control new fire starts. This crew was fighting a burn on Libby Creek, which faced additional threats from nearby fires on Texas and Gold creeks. photo bY marcY stamper 10 TRIAL BY FIRE
A publication of the Methow Valley News
timing out of flight hours and has another mission, and needs to be cut loose ASAP.” No smokejumpers were available either. According to the hand-written notes on Cougar Flat kept by the duty officer, at 7:15 p.m., the incident
commander requested tree fallers, a helicopter or airplane, a dozer and a 20-person crew for Wednesday. At 8 p.m., the log reads, “Frequent spots across line on south. Do what can.” Two hours later, the entry reads, “35-40 acres, all resources leaving
the fire.” Efforts to get a Forest Service crew to help at Cougar Flat that night were also unsuccessful: “FS is reluctant to have anyone out, don’t want to split up a 20 person crew.” On Wednesday (July 16), incident logs do not list any ground resources at Cougar Flat. An entry at noon from the Cougar division said the team wouldn’t be able to “do much good” and was available for other fires. But at around 9 p.m. they recorded calls from worried residents in the Bear Creek area and sent a message to a structure crew that “we have fire activity on Cougar with no resources on it, that is threatening some homes.” Wednesday afternoon, the fire sent up a massive plume that was visible from Mazama to Twisp and began racing south.
Texas and Gold creek fires
The incinerated trees and blackened landscape near the origin point of the Cougar Flat Fire show how hot it burned. photo bY marcY stamper
We extend our deepest gratitude to all who kept us safe
Further south, the Golden Hike Fire, which was about 1 acre on Tuesday morning (July 15), was also growing rapidly. In addition to Curtis’ crew, there was a helicopter dropping water on the fire much of the day, but the air tanker they asked for was busy on the Stokes Road Fire (Texas Creek) a few miles north. At that time, the Stokes Road Fire was considered to be the highest priority, followed by Golden Hike and French Creek. Cougar Flat — the furthest from homes — was assigned the lowest priority as fire managers triaged the four fires, said Curtis. Over the next two days, the Cougar Flat Fire spread rapidly, burning dozens of houses on Balky Hill, Upper and Lower Beaver Creek, Finley Canyon and the Loup before merging with the fires at Texas and
Extreme fire behavior
The fires started at a time when resources were already spread thin throughout the Northwest, owing to an unusually dry spring and weeks of very hot weather, according to DNR’s Northeast Region Manager. Once the fires got going, intensely hot and dry conditions, coupled with unusually strong wind gusts, created a 100-percent chance that any spark or ember that landed on the ground would ignite a new fire, said Ben Curtis, a fire behavior analyst with the first incident management team
Thank you, firefighters!
© 2014 Alex Hulphers
French creeks. Thursday night (July 17), people in Pateros had just eight minutes’ warning before the fire engulfed 32 houses. The fire, described by witnesses as tornado-like, was reportedly traveling up to 3.8 acres per second. After reaching Pateros, one leg of the fire headed toward Chelan, while another flank went north toward Brewster and Malott and on to the east slope of the Loup summit. Charlie Curtis was not assigned to Cougar Flat again after the first day. Even though the fire had been contained when he left, given the unrelentingly severe weather, he said he was not surprised that it had spread. “On that hillside, with that grass and those weather conditions, three people can’t do much,” said Curtis. “I don’t know if three hot-shots — the best firefighters in the world — could have caught it. It will go uphill faster than they can cut line and move dirt.” Efforts by the Methow Valley News to reach and interview the firefighters who were assigned to Cougar Flat on the second day were unsuccessful.
www.MethowBlueSky.com (509) 996-8084
TRIAL BY FIRE
to manage the Carlton Complex Fire, the name given the four combined fires, in July. (He is no relation to Charlie Curtis.) These massive plumes, which can reach more than 25,000 feet into the air, create a perpetuating cycle as they collapse and suck in more wind, building in heat and intensity. With plume-dominated fire behavior, a fire can spread in any direction, because the fire spits out burning debris up to a mile from the plume, said fire analyst Curtis. For many days conditions were so extreme — with flames up to 30 feet long — that all firefighters could do was protect structures and monitor and extinguish spot fires. Retardant was helping slightly, but the fire was creating new spot fires beyond the retardant lines, said Curtis. In those first days, the Methow Valley did not even get the typical night-time rise in humidity, which would moisten vegetation and mean shorter flame lengths, making the fire easier and safer to control. As a result, firefighters did not have an early-morning window when they could make a safe, productive attack on the fire, said Curtis.
Many people question why the fires — in particular, the blaze at Cougar Flat — were not contained while they were smaller. The questions have led to 65 claims for damages against the state on behalf of people who lost property in the fire, citing negligence by DNR. “No one disputes that the fire was totally out of control at its peak,” said Alex Thomason, the Brewster-based attorney who filed the claims. “This is about what happened at the beginning, when the fire could have been controlled with shovels.” The claims, filed in October, seek damages for the value of property lost in the fire — $1,000 to $2.3 million, more than $9 million in total. The state would have 60 days to investigate and respond to the claims before the parties would be permitted to file a lawsuit, said Thomason. As of early December, the state had taken no action on any of the claims filed by Thomason, but had denied three other claims submitted separately, finding no negligence 12 TRIAL BY FIRE
The burn at French Creek was severe. The fire was one of four called in the first day, but crews were not reported to be on scene until the following day. On the third day, crews had to pull out by noon to avoid becoming trapped. photo bY marcY stamper by DNR in two cases and improper jurisdiction in one involving a worker injury.Other people contend that even after the first few days — there were 500 personnel on the fire by July 17 — the response was inadequate, and some charge outright negligence. In separate but similar accounts, many people reported that fire crews — from DNR as well as private and county departments from around the state — appeared to be standing around and doing nothing as the fire blazed. Okanogan County Commissioner Ray Campbell, a Methow Valley resident, is one of those charging negligence. At a state Senate committee hearing about the fire in November, Campbell predicted that we will see more local efforts to combat fires because people are “scared of the fact that we had DNR firefighters out there that actually ran away from helping them, didn’t go out and help put the fires out, watched the structures burn.” Many people have also questioned
why crews were not assigned to the fire overnight, believing crews could have made progress when conditions moderated. Logs show that firefighters were at Texas Creek all night from the start. But records and interviews with firefighters suggest that there were not enough crews available to have people working around the clock at all the fires. So managers generally reserved the crews for daytime, to try to control the fire when fire behavior — and the potential for growth — would be even more severe.
The military command structure
DNR officials have not commented on the specific circumstances of the Carlton Complex Fire, but they pointed to overall safety practices to explain why crews may seem to be doing nothing. DNR’s policy is to suppress all fires under its jurisdiction, but the department has to ensure it has adequate support to do it safely, said Janet Pearce, communications manager for the agency. “We use a military system to
manage complex situations — it’s just a different enemy,” said Guy Gifford, fire prevention coordinator for DNR’s Northeast Region, and a firefighter with 30 years’ experience. The incident command system (ICS), which has been used since the 1970s to manage wildfires and other natural disasters, creates a level of trust, so that it doesn’t matter whom firefighters work for, said Gifford. So while people may see a truck with a DNR logo, it might be someone else who’s in charge, he said. ICS employs a hierarchy of standardized titles, terminology and jobs so that everyone knows who does what and whom they report to. Supervisors are responsible for knowing where everyone is, and others monitor the location of the fire and escape routes. In this system, crew members have little independence and are not permitted to divert from their assignment, according to Gifford. They have some discretion to decide how to accomplish a given task — for A publication of the Methow Valley News
We have a situation up here on Texas Creek. The fire is down on a bunch of structures and the district is out of trucks. — dispatch log, July 16
example, if they are told to keep the fire from moving beyond a certain area, a crew boss can decide whether to dig hand lines or use water — but, in general, they are not given the freedom to make their own decisions.
The incident command system is designed to keep everyone safe and accounted for. The only area where crews do have freedom is with regard to safety. Any crew member has the right to refuse to do something if he or she feels unsafe, said Charlie Curtis. “There’s a higher plan above our pay grade. Except when it comes to safety — you can speak up if something makes you really nervous,” said a private contractor who has worked on many fires in the region. Crews may also have different levels of experience and training and could therefore be limited as to the functions they can safely perform. If the division supervisor pulls you off the line and tells you not to engage, you don’t, said another firefighter, who declined to be identified. “I won’t second-guess why I’m being pulled back,” he said, noting that it could be because of a change in fire behavior or a breakdown in equipment or communications. “We serve at their pleasure. We’re assigned to a division and we’re on www.MethowValleyNews.com
their strike team till de-mobed. There is no freelancing,” said another. Units have precise tasks and guidelines for engagement. “We all assume when we see a red truck with guys in yellow shirts, that they’ll put out a fire, but they have very specific assignments every day,” said Okanogan County Emergency Manager Scott Miller. The military command structure may compound people’s frustration if it results in an appearance of calloused indifference. When Kim and Lenore Maltais were trying to get firefighters to help them protect their house on the Loup, their desperation and anger were exacerbated by what they described as a complete lack of response from six to eight fire crews parked in a field across from their property. “I begged for help and the guy just turned his back and walked away,” said Lenore. The Maltaises said the crews gave no reason for their inaction. Instead, the crews “were taking selfies and sitting on the hoods of their vehicles eating lunch,” said Kim, who has 20 years of experience fighting fires and training firefighters for the Forest Service. “If their mission is to watch, they should say that,” he said. “I’ve never seen a fiasco like this, ever.” The Maltaises, who lost their house, family heirlooms, four dogs and a parrot in the blaze, successfully fought fire on a neighbor’s property with garden hoses and sprinklers after their house burned. Only then did the crews begin to help, creating a bulldozer line and putting out hot spots. “They didn’t move till I had it all knocked down,” said Kim. Bob and Fannie Tonseth described a similar experience at their property further south on McFarland Creek. A DNR crew warned them to leave and said it wasn’t safe for the crew to stay and help, said Bob. Tonseth had built a fire line in June and had a gravityfed water system. “I knew we could defend our place,” he said. “They didn’t even look. If they’d looked and said it wasn’t defensible, that would have been OK,” he said. The Tonseths saved their house, but lost six outbuildings containing antiques and tools. “I didn’t expect it to hit like it did and to be that violent,” said Bob.
Commissioner Campbell was indignant when he told the Senate committee about crews who used a pond on the property of his 94-yearold aunt to fill helicopter buckets but then dropped all the water elsewhere — and none on her house, which was destroyed in the blaze. In other areas burned in the Carlton Complex Fire, it was not inaction, but action, that people question. One property owner said fire crews arrived with orders to do a burnout (backburn) in the area, despite a strong wind blowing toward houses and a secure dozer line that had been established earlier in the day. Although it is troubling to see fire crews apparently doing nothing, fire managers say not all considerations are evident to the general public. A crew that seems to be standing
around may have been pulled out of an unsafe area, said Robin DeMario, public affairs specialist with the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest and a former fire-crew leader. Often the crew is stationed nearby in case conditions change so that they are available for mop-up or other tasks, she said. If a civilian or a member of another strike team asks a crew to do something, the crew doesn’t have the authority to make that decision. “We’re trained early on about the span of control from the very top down. They need to know where all resources are and have communications with them,” said a private contractor. Crews need to be dispatched in an organized manner. “You can’t have what we call the ‘moth to the flame’ thing — it will get you in trouble,”
An Okanogan County sheriff’s deputy and heavy equipment contractor Steve Kieffer consult on the first day of the Stokes Road Fire on Texas Creek, declared the highest priority of the four initial fires because of the number of homes threatened. photo bY marcY stamper TRIAL BY FIRE 13
said Charlie Curtis. The dispatch log for French and Texas creeks on Wednesday shows how chaotic it can be in the midst of a fire: “Do you want to put in a dozer line to protect residences? Yes make sure you have an escape route that was our problem on Texas Creek is that we didn’t have one.”
Variable levels of training
Once the Carlton Complex was assigned a national-level incident management team and declared the highest-priority fire in the country, thousands of firefighters, including highly skilled hot-shot crews, helicopters and a vast support structure were on hand to combat the fire. But some people wonder whether some of the local DNR crews were too inexperienced to handle the situation safely and effectively. Many of the firefighters he worked with at DNR had just completed
their initial training, according to Charlie Curtis, who said turnover for seasonal firefighting jobs at DNR is quite high. Once people get some experience, those who want to continue as firefighters typically try to get hired by another agency or a private contractor, where they can earn more money, he said. Other firefighters agreed that DNR seems to be perpetually underfunded and has trouble retaining experienced crews. On the other hand, one firefighter observed that some of the people and state legislators who blame DNR for ineffective response also vote against additional funding for the agency. In the 2013-15 biennium, DNR had a total budget of $56.8 million for fire response, according to DNR’s Pearce. The agency is seeking an increase of $4.45 million to restore 22 positions eliminated by budget cuts after the 2008 recession. That
A helicopter scooped water from the Methow River south of Carlton on July 19. By that weekend, resources had arrived from around the country, but the fire had also burned vast swaths on the eastern flanks of the Methow Valley and on both sides of the river, all the way south to Pateros. photo bY marcY stamper 14 TRIAL BY FIRE
funding would also enable DNR to hire new helicopter firefighting and training personnel. DNR has also requested $71.4 million in supplemental funding to pay for the costs of fighting wildfires in 2014, she said. Budgets for fire suppression in the Methow Valley Ranger District have increased over the past 10 years. Although there has been some year-toyear fluctuation, the budget has gone from $550,000 in 2004 to $800,000 this year, according to Matt Castle, deputy fire staff for the OkanoganWenatchee National Forest. The additional funding means more personnel, too. Ten years ago the ranger district had three engines with three people each, plus a fiveperson crew that could be deployed for digging fire lines or other tasks as needed. This year the ranger district has two crews with five people each, plus a 20-person crew. They maintain two different-sized engines to be able to maneuver on different types of roads. Even highly trained crews from western Washington may not have the appropriate experience to attack fires safely and effectively in this dry climate, according to several people who have fought wildfires here. Another complicating factor is the lack of opportunity for firefighters to obtain the certification that would qualify them to perform certain tasks. Charlie Curtis described the “task book” system used by wildland firefighters around the country, in which an individual demonstrates mastery of a particular skill on a fire and has a supervisor sign off on it. The task books specify qualifications for every position in the incident command system and establish minimum requirements for training, experience and physical fitness. But it can take years for a firefighter to become certified for a particular job, either because the task is not needed during the current incident or season, or because it is too dangerous for someone without direct experience to perform a crucial task, said Curtis. As part of his job with DNR, Curtis, a certified instructor with the Washington Contract Firefighters Association, also taught the introductory five-day class for new firefighters.
As a result — particularly in a severe fire season, when everyone with basic training is needed on the lines — firefighters may be deployed with significant limitations on what they can do. This situation also extends to equipment. Several people have charged that bulldozers and other heavy equipment went unused during the Carlton Complex Fire. “Everyone was screaming for dozers. There were dozers, but no dozer bosses to supervise them,” said Curtis. A dozer boss functions as the eyes and ears on the ground, walking ahead and behind a dozer to make sure the situation is safe — particularly because the equipment is so loud that the operator cannot hear radio communications, he said.
Protecting wildlands versus houses
Firefighters also have distinct areas of responsibility. DNR and the Forest Service protect wildlands and their firefighters don’t have the training or equipment to fight structure fires or to protect themselves from toxic materials in a burning house. If firefighters appear to be watching something burn, it could be their training and experience, said Okanogan County Fire District 6 Chief Don Waller. “We won’t send firefighters anywhere where they will get burned. They’re not only spraying water. No piece of property is worth getting somebody killed,” he said. The Wildland Fire Incident Management Field Guide puts it this way: “Do not commit to stay and protect a structure unless a safety zone for firefighters and equipment has been identified at the structure during sizeup and triage. Move to the nearest safety zone, let the fire front pass, and return as soon as conditions allow.” “The whole objective is to help put the fire out before it gets to a structure,” said one wildland firefighter.
Loss of local control?
Some of the criticism of firefighters’ response this summer cites the historic approach to firefighting in fire-prone areas like the Methow Valley. Many have said it was more effective to have people like ranchers or loggers, who are accustomed to A publication of the Methow Valley News
Pateros lost 32 houses in town, most in a concentrated area of a few square blocks. Residents had eight minutes to evacuate on Thursday night, July 17. photo bY marcY stamper fighting fires promptly and aggressively, on hand. Commissioner Campbell told the senators that this region had similar weather and conditions in the 1960s, but “those fires were attacked immediately and aggressively. And, yes, they were local resources, farmers that were on call — they dropped what they were doing, they had their tools in the back of their rigs, and away they went.” “The problem is, we have lost local control,” Dave Schulz told the Okanogan County board of commissioners at their own hearing on the fire in late October. Schulz, a former Okanogan County commissioner, current county planning commissioner and orchardist in Twisp who lost acres of timber in the fire, said that area residents, because of their familiarity with wind and weather www.MethowValleyNews.com
patterns, need to be part of any team fighting a major fire. Firefighters working for an agency today — whether as employees or contractors — abide by different rules from the farmers and loggers of the past. They are obligated to follow the agency’s chain of command and safety standards. Before a crew can take action, the members must go through checklists and hear an official briefing, said Charlie Curtis. Sometimes those briefings can delay deployment. For example, a crew that arrives in the afternoon from out of the area may have to wait — it could in fact be by the side of the road — for the division supervisor to brief them before they are sent to the fire. “It always takes awhile to size up a fire — you can’t expose personnel to things they don’t understand,”
said the private contractor. Incident managers survey the fire — either on foot or from the air — to determine the potential for the fire to escape, develop a plan of attack, and define safety routes, he said. Firefighters have an acronym — LCES, for lookouts, communications, escape routes and safety zones. They are expected to identify these elements before engaging and to constantly reassess and be ready to revise them if conditions change. “You can’t go out without a lookout in place — people have gotten killed,” said Curtis.
Changes since Thirtymile
Veteran firefighters say firefighting has become less aggressive since the 2001 Thirtymile Fire in the Chewuch drainage, where four firefighters died when the fire burned
over them. Phil Dart, the fire chief in the northern Okanogan County town of Molson for the past 30 years, said he has seen a huge shift in the approach to fighting fires since Thirtymile. “You can’t fight aggressively because you can’t get somebody hurt,” he said. All firefighters receive a lot of training about past fatalities and where the breakdowns occurred. “Thirtymile set everyone on the road to being super safety-conscious,” said one local firefighter. Investigations after Thirtymile pointed to unacceptable attention to safety and found that all 10 standard firefighting orders had been violated. Investigators identified problems including inaccurate assessments of fuels, fire behavior and fire potential; tactics unsuited to the fire behavior; fatigue; and a lack of escape routes. TRIAL BY FIRE 15
As a result, after Thirtymile, federal officials instituted changes that apply to all firefighters. They require supervisors and firefighters to be aware of the fire situation at all times and be ready to alter tactics if conditions change. They have implemented strict policies to counter fatigue. They also require additional supervision when conditions indicate the potential for large fires. Safety equipment and fire shelters have been improved. One directive to emerge from the recommendations after Thirtymile is clear: “Disengage suppression activities immediately if strategies and tactics cannot be implemented safely.”
Triage: the difficult choices
This past summer, fire managers had to make particularly difficult decisions about priorities. “As fate would happen for this particular year, we weren’t the only state that was experiencing a
I begged for help and the guy just turned his back and walked away. If their mission is to watch, they should say that. I’ve never seen a fiasco like this, ever.” - Kim and Lenore Maltais, whose house on the Loup burned in the fire 16 TRIAL BY FIRE
tremendous amount of starts. … Not only does that suck up [the states’] own resources, but it also challenges contract resources. It makes it a very competitive atmosphere … and makes it difficult to get all the resources that we really need,” said Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark at the Senate committee hearing on the Carlton Complex Fire. Normally, DNR engines are assigned to specific geographic areas and the one that can get to a fire first will be sent, said DNR’s Gifford. In the spring, dispatchers usually send a single engine to a fire, where crews create a containment line, mop up all hot spots, and leave. No one even hears about those incidents. But once weather is hotter and drier, dispatchers automatically send more than one engine, given the higher risk that the fire will spread, he said. Still, knowing what resources are needed to contain a fire is not always enough, said Gifford. An incident commander may request additional resources but, in a shortage, dispatchers and the duty officer (who coordinates all the responses and communicates with firefighters) have to decide how many crews to send — and how many to keep in reserve to respond to new starts, said Gifford. “In firefighting, the No. 1 objective is to keep the fire small,” said Gifford. “But it’s a balancing act. You could dump everything on a big fire and then get another because there’s only one engine left for a new start.” The dispatch logs for the first day of the Stokes Road Fire at Texas Creek — where more than 100 firefighters and several aircraft were trying to save homes — make this abundantly clear. “What are the chances you could break someone loose to check 2 new incidents?” the dispatcher asked the incident commander. As the fire season progresses and fires are burning across the region, there are several incident commanders, all wanting resources, said Gifford. “How do you prioritize resources for big fires? For example, there are 20 hand crews from California — who gets them?”
There were more than 100 firefighters and air attack crews assigned to the fire at Texas Creek on the first day but, in such severe conditions, progress could be short lived. A dozer line created by crews the first night had “blown out” the next day, according to dispatch logs. photo bY marcY stamper Once fires become large enough, triage becomes the responsibility of the regional Geographic Area Coordination Center, not local agencies, said Gifford. After all agency crews — from DNR and the Forest Service — have been deployed, fire managers hire private contractors, who have set agreements with the agencies, priced by type of equipment. The contractors are usually hired starting with the least expensive, although occasionally they may be called sooner based on proximity. Bill Hanson of Carlton, a private contractor who handles communications for aviation in fires, said the state’s contract requirements were overly complex, lengthy and costly. If the process were not so cumbersome, crews could have been at work on the Carlton Complex Fire sooner, he contended.
Kudos in a difficult situation
Despite lingering questions and criticisms, many people who worked with DNR had praise for its staff. “I understand there has been some ‘bad press’ on the DNR efforts, including the leadership, and decision making of the I.C’s [incident commanders] in this fire. These criticisms are misplaced and simply wrong,” wrote Okanogan County Emergency Manager Miller in an email to DNR on July 21, a week after the fires began. The email was provided in response to a public records request. “The performance of your crews, I.C.s, and especially the D.O. [duty officer] was outstanding. The marshalling and direction of resources was rapid and effective, within the context of safe operations. We were all ‘outmanned’ and ‘outgunned’ by the fire, as you all know, with new starts coming almost by the A publication of the Methow Valley News
iver uch R Chew
Falls d Roa
Falls Creek Campground
Mazama Goat Creek Road
West Chewuch Road
War Creek Campground
k ree eC
Twin Lakes Road
Elbow Coulee Road
Rising Eagle Road Fire
Balky Hill Road
Twisp Riv er Road
Carlton Complex Fire
Loup Loup Summit
Finley Canyon Road
Black Ridge Blackpine Lake Campground
North Fork Libby Creek Libby Lake
ork th F k Sou by Cree Lib North Fork Gold Creek
Libb y Cre
Foggy Dew Campground
Gold k For th reek u o S ld C Go
Texa s Cre ek
French C reek
Methow 1 mile
ia R mb
Pateros Alta Lake State Park
Rennie Peak Reynolds Peak Williams Butte
Lone Mountain 1 Fire
Patterson Lake Road
R nty Cou
Pea rr Sta Lakeygin te P ark
East Chewuch Road
iver Sun Mountain Lodge
ge rid re B tle Fi Lit Creek
Boulder Creek Road
ek Cre der
Be ave Bea rC ver ree Cree k k Ro ad
West Chewuch Road
Lost River Road
graphic bY darla husseY
Map illustrating this summer’s fires in the Methow Valley.
Upper Falls Fire k Cree tmile Eigh
minute,” wrote Miller. “Every time another fire started, Donny [the duty officer] somehow managed to find or redirect another resource to attempt to stop it. No one was ever sitting around, waiting for direction, or hindered by untimely lack of management decisions …. Some unnamed fire units were sitting around doing nothing, but the DNR units were not one of them.” Charlie Curtis also praised the people he worked with at DNR. “I don’t feel like I have to defend DNR — I have no loyalty,” said Curtis, who resigned from DNR in August because he could earn more money working for private firefighting crews. “They did everything they could, with inexperienced people and the tools they had. I was impressed with the leadership and the engine bosses.” Curtis reserved his critique for the overall firefighting system. “Things got screwed up way before this summer,” with concerns about liability interfering with fighting fires aggressively, he said. “People on the ground have the skills to take action safely, but they’re not allowed,” he said. On the other hand, in a large fire, with crews from all over the country, supervisors are not familiar with specific individuals or their degree of competency, he acknowledged. Some crews on the Carlton Complex Fire were “champing at the bit to do something,” but they would have had to disobey their supervisor and risk losing their job if they took action, said Curtis. Nevertheless, “You can’t have a bunch of individuals running around doing what they feel is safe,” said Curtis. “It’s a safer thing to say, ‘we’re going to hold back.’” At the Senate committee
TRIAL BY FIRE 17
hearing about the fire, State Sen. Jim Hargrove (D-Hoquiam), praised DNR but raised concerns about the state’s approach to firefighting. “Our system is a little bit antiquated — we draw the lines of separation between what the DNR does, what the local fire districts do, what the communities are responsible for, in a very non-precise way in this state, and of course it’s rolled up into a disaster like this,” he said. “You were doing your job — probably doing more than your job — and it still didn’t work.”
Progression Map August 4, 2014
Created: 20140804 Rocky Mountain Team 1 2 Miles
Loop Loop (historical)
Can fighting fires be safe?
After two decades as a firefighter, Curtis recognizes the inherent contradictions of firefighting. Since safety guidelines have improved, firefighters today have better protection, but the public’s expectations have not evolved along with those safety standards, he said. The public still assumes firefighters have the responsibility to put out fires, although the firefighters don’t have the authority to act on that responsibility. “There’s a big difference between being good and being lucky,” said Curtis. “Both parties will get the job done. But doing the job well is doing it safely and getting the job done. A lot of us have been lucky.” Editor’s note: As part of the research for this article, the Methow Valley News interviewed dozens of people and examined thousands of pages of documents from the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. Although these documents are only a small portion of the files requested from the agency (the public disclosure assistant said they have 26 file boxes on the Carlton Complex Fire, which will take them three to six months to review), the records provided thus far include dispatch logs for crews and aircraft, weather reports, geological reviews and reams of correspondence (a single file of emails runs to 3,084 pages). A public records request with the U.S. Forest Service is still pending. ❖
M Bar J Ranch Mobile Home Park
carlton compleX incident command post 18 TRIAL BY FIRE
! . Wakefield ! .
Virginia City . (historical) !
Carlton Complex - Progression Date
Growth Total Acres
2014-07-15, 1728, 1728
2014-07-16 2359, 2679, 7276 2014-07-16, 2869, 4597 2014-07-17, 33361, 40637 2014-07-18 0100, 127126, 167764
2014-07-18 2054, 47394, 215157
2014-07-20 0048, 22746, 237903 2014-07-20 2209, 6438, 244342 2014-07-21, 6806, 251148
2014-07-23 0213, 118, 251266
2014-07-23 2144, 226, 251492 2014-07-25, 25, 251517 2014-07-26, 137, 251654 2014-07-27, 152, 251807 2014-07-28, 219, 252026 2014-07-29, 672, 252698
Map showing the progression of the Carlton Complex Fire. map courtesY
2014-07-30, Greens 1050, 253748 Hollywood Landing Beach 2014-07-31, 1204, ! . 254952 ! . Shrine 2014-08-01, 2929, 257881 Beach ! .
2014-08-03, 779, 255164
Note: Perimeters are approximate and may change due to more accurate mapping.
A publication of the Methow Valley News
Making peace with dead trees The charred landscape is the foundation for new habitat By Ann McCreary
HE blackened skeletons of thousands of trees will stand like specters on the Methow Valley landscape for the rest of our lifetimes — stark reminders of the enormous devastation wreaked by the Carlton Complex Fire of 2014. So, do we cringe every time we look at them, or do we learn to accept them as part of the fire-altered landscape we now inhabit? Ken Bevis of Winthrop advises the latter approach. “Where the dead trees aren’t a problem, we should get used to them and enjoy them as reminders of the power of nature. We’re gonna look at them for a long time,” said Bevis. He should know. His house on Rising Eagle Road, previously surrounded by stands of green pine trees, now sits in the midst of “a snag patch,” Bevis said. He admits that he’s still getting over the shock of losing the landscape he loved. But as a wildlife biologist and forest steward who has spent years educating people about the value of dead trees, he recommends we learn to make peace with them, and perhaps, even appreciate them. “Most of a tree is dead, always. The outer layer is the only living part all the way up to the trunk, even in the branches. Leaves are different and are actively alive. The bulk of this dead tissue — wood — persists in the ecosystem for long periods of time after the tree dies,” Bevis said. Wood is a great material in the ecosystem for all sorts of reasons, including habitat, food and structure, he said. “It is fodder for fungi, which break the wood down into soil nutrients, and food for insects that eat various www.MethowValleyNews.com
types of wood in differing ways. These bugs feed birds and mammals,” he said. Wood cylinders can be dens for birds and mammals, and cover for reptiles and amphibians, which can reside in the dead wood and eat insects there as well. “Once we start looking at all of the ways dead wood contributes to habitat, it is kind of mind-boggling,” Bevis said.
Dead wood enters forest ecosystems in pulses, after some sort of event kills trees, such as fire or insect attack. This wood generally persists for about as long as the tree was alive, sometimes longer, Bevis said. Burned wood is somewhat resistant to fungal attack and can actually last longer than other dead wood. “Consider Yellowstone [National Park],” Bevis said. “The big fire was in 1988. Today there are many hundreds of thousands, or even millions of still-standing dead trees there. The young forest is emerging beneath them, as it always has been.” Snags and down logs are critical habitat for about 40 percent of the forest-dwelling wildlife species, he said. “That is a lot,” Bevis said. “For example, woodpeckers feed on insects residing under the bark and in the wood. They build their nesting cavities in dead wood that has enough rot in it to allow excavation. Bluebirds, small owls, kestrels, tree swallows, flying and Douglas squirrels, chipmunks, raccoons, and many other species use these cavities when the woodpeckers go make a new one next year.” The down logs provide hiding places for small mammals that will spread seeds and fungal spores across the land, and be food for raptors and coyotes, he added. Reptiles and some amphibians will use down logs as critical habitats too. “So a standing dead tree, or down log, is an oasis of sorts for a huge number of wildlife species,” Bevis said. “We just had a heck of an input
Local tree cutter Owen Almquist saws the tops off burned, dead trees on Ken Bevis’s property on Rising Eagle Road to create homes for cavity-dwelling critters. photo bY ann mccrearY
of dead wood around the valley.” And that’s good news for lots of critters. In cases where the dead trees will threaten buildings or other infrastructure, they will need to be removed. But if the trees pose no hazard, Bevis suggests property owners consider doing what he did
with about 10 burned trees around his house. Bevis hired a tree cutter to chop the tops off to create snags that will quickly become homes to bugs, birds and other animals. “It’s one way to keep some of the habitat value in these structures,” he said. ❖ TRIAL BY FIRE 19
A pileated woodpecker pounds away at the bark of a scorched tree, seeking insects that arrive after a fire and lay eggs under the bark. photo bY teri pieper 20 TRIAL BY FIRE
A publication of the Methow Valley News
A natural process Wildlife adaptation is part of the fire recovery cycle By Ann McCreary
N the wake of last summer’s catastrophic wildfires, stunned Methow Valley residents found it hard to imagine any positive outcome from the devastation around them. That’s not surprising because, of all the valley’s diverse animal inhabitants, humans may experience the most difficulty recovering from the damage they sustained to their homes and way of life. But for other animals and the land they rely on to provide food and shelter, the wildfires are already renewing and reinvigorating an ecosystem that was in need of change. For the Methow Valley, that agent of change has always been fire. “Fire is a natural process, as natural as the rain falling or the wind blowing,” said Peter Morrison, executive director and senior staff scientist at the Pacific Biodiversity Institute (PBI) in Winthrop, which has been studying the environmental impacts of wildfire for more than two decades. “When dealing with fire-adapted ecosystems, this is not an abnormal event. All these places have burned hundreds or thousands of times before,” Morrison said. “In most cases the ecological condition of these ecosystems had deteriorated from a combination of fire exclusion, excessive livestock grazing, improper logging practices and weed invasions,” according to a PBI assessment of the Carlton Complex Fire issued in September. “In many cases the ecosystems affected by the fire needed fire to restore themselves to optimal health and productivity.” For human inhabitants of the www.MethowValleyNews.com
Holding her badly burned paws in the air, a bear cub rests in grass near the French Creek home of Steve Love two weeks after the fire swept through. Named Cinder by her rescuers, the cub is recovering from her injuries this winter at a bear rehabilitation center in Idaho. photo courtesY steve love Methow Valley, “the fires certainly had a very damaging effect on the local community and economy,” Morrison said. The damage to residents affected by the fire extends beyond the more than 300 homes that were lost, he said. Fire caused significant losses of livestock and agricultural crops. Pasturelands were blackened and forage was lost for the remainder of the year. People suffered significant losses to their built environment. Miles of fencing, important to ranchers and orchardists, burned. Barns and irrigation systems were destroyed. Electrical transmission lines were damaged, leaving much of the valley without power for more than a week, disrupting local businesses during the height of the valley’s important tourist season. For humans, the recovery is predicted to take years. “We have had a lot of human pain,”
said Scott Fitkin, a wildlife biologist with Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW). But people, along with other animals that inhabit this valley, stand to benefit from an ecosystem that comes back stronger and more resilient, Fitkin said. “The key is that fire is a natural part of the ecosystem. It’s a restorative influence. It’s important to have disturbance in the ecosystem,” he said.
Benefits of wildfire
“It can appear that wildfire is something of a holocaust for wildlife, but this would be a misinterpretation of reality,” wrote naturalist Dana Visalli in an article in The Methow Naturalist journal. “Fire rejuvenates plant communities by constantly cycling nutrients, which in turn revitalizes the primary and secondary consumers — the animals.” While the long-term outlook for
Methow Valley wildlife is positive, biologists say, many animals suffered or died in the fire and many will struggle while their habitat recovers. “We know fires like this are a natural process,” said Kent Woodruff, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Forest Service. “The bad news is we lost habitat for lots of animals and those animal populations will be diminished for the next several years. The good part is in the next few years the flush of renewal, nutrients and good fertile soil will help the recovery turn into a wildlife bonanza.” Victims of the fire include a bear cub with badly burned paws that was rescued on French Creek two weeks after the fires swept through. Named Cinder by her rescuers, she gained international attention after she was flown to Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care for more than three months of medical treatment. Cinder was transferred in November to the Idaho Black Bear Rehabilitation TRIAL BY FIRE 21
facility to spend the winter before her anticipated release in the Methow Valley in spring. The Methow Valley’s Lookout Pack of gray wolves also suffered. Researchers in the field found the remains of a wolf pup near a burnedover den or rendezvous site. It appeared the pup died in the aftermath of the fire. Researchers believe that only one pup in a litter born this spring survived. Fitkin said he has heard reports and seen photos of other large animals — including cougars and deer — that were killed in the fire, but those are “probably not indicative of the general population,” he said. “Typically with fires the larger and
more mobile animals tend to get out of the way. Usually we don’t see big effects directly from fire on those bigger animals,” Fitkin said.
Impact on mule deer
Indirect effects from loss of winter range, however, is anticipated to take a significant toll on one of the Methow Valley’s most prominent species — mule deer, which roam in large herds. “Range for about one-third of the wintering deer in Okanogan County may have been affected by the fire,” said Fitkin. Okanogan County is home to the state’s largest mule deer herd, with an estimated population of about
25,000 deer living west of the Okanogan River. About half of the herd lives in the Methow Valley. The burned areas include about 40 percent of what Fitkin considers “the highest-density winter range areas.” With the loss of large swaths of winter range, there will be too many deer for the area to support this winter, and possibly for several years to come, said Fitkin. “Starvation is a natural part of deer biology every year,” Fitkin said. “About 53 percent of fawns die every winter. I would anticipate a higher than average fawn mortality this winter no matter what we do.” Anticipating the potential for much greater starvation among mule deer
Annual and perennial plants are expected to thrive in sunny areas newly cleared by fire, attracting insects and the birds that feed on them. photo bY Joanna bastian 22 TRIAL BY FIRE
competing for food on the reduced winter range, WDFW approved a significant increase in the number of hunting permits for antlerless deer during the fall hunting season. In three Methow Valley game management units where winter range was significantly damaged by the fires, WDFW increased the anticipated harvest of antlerless deer to about 900 animals in 2014, compared to 34 in 2013, Fitkin said. Actual figures of deer harvested won’t be known until early 2015 when hunter reports are compiled. The goal in decreasing the herd is not only to prevent widespread starvation during the winter, but also to ensure that there are not too many deer grazing on the range as it begins restoring itself in the spring. “We need to manage the deer herd in line with the current landscape carrying capacity so that as habitat recovers, the deer don’t mow it all down,” Fitkin said. “It’s short-term pain for long-term gain.” Fall rains and mild temperatures brought a flush of new grass in burned areas, and that forage gave the deer an assist, helping them “put on that much more fat reserve before winter,” Fitkin said. If the winter turns out to be an extremely difficult one for the wintering mule deer, wildlife managers have developed a contingency plan to do selective feeding to prevent starvation. “We will be monitoring deer conditions and snow conditions” to determine if the deer need supplemental food, Fitkin said. WDFW has identified about seven burned-over winter range sites on public land where 10 feeders that hold processed pellets will be placed in the event that feeding becomes necessary this winter to prevent the herd from starving. State wildlife land next to Highway 20 below Loup Loup summit is an example of an area where feeders will be located. “That was prime winter range before the fire,” Fitkin said. Feeding is viewed by biologists as a last resort, because concentrating deer at a feeder makes the animals more vulnerable to disease, predation and poaching, and conditions a generation of deer to feed in one area. Having so many animals clustered in one area can also damage the land and hinder restoration efforts. A publication of the Methow Valley News
Loss of winter range makes it more likely that deer will move onto orchards, farms and private property to forage. WDFW has been working with landowners to help replace firedamaged fences, and to seek funding for more repairs. Feeding stations may also be used to lure deer away from farms and orchards.
that consume seeds may be among the losers over the short term, he said. “We lost thousands of acres of seeds that were wiped out in one night — an entire crop of grass seeds, flower seeds, weed seeds,” Woodruff
swarm to newly charred forests, where they deposit millions of eggs onto the bark of dead and dying trees. “Once the insects arrive, woodpeckers that are specialists in burned forests, such as the black-backed and three-toed woodpeckers appear to feast on the bugs,” Visalli wrote in The Methow Naturalist. By autumn, many blackened trees around the valley had large areas of missing bark where woodpeckers have been feeding — evidence of the quick adaptation by wildlife to the changed environment. While insects that lived in burned grasslands, shrub-steppe and forests may suffer a short-term setback, annual and perennial plants that thrive in sunny areas newly cleared by fire will attract insects and birds that feed on them, such as mountain bluebirds, olive-sided flycatchers and Lewis’s woodpeckers. Bats also benefit from the influx of insects, local biologists say. “The next couple of years there should be quite the flower show. If you’re a birder the next year is going to be prime time, and mushroom hunting will be good,” Fitkin said. Few of the valley’s human residents would have chosen to become part of nature’s sometimes-violent cycle of loss and recovery. But Woodruff believes the wildfires offer a unique chance to observe — and play a part in — the renewal of the natural world around us. “This is perhaps the best opportunity for us here in the valley to recognize the wakeup call [and] to find ways to adapt to these kinds of events to help us be the best caretakers of wildlife species that are here,” Woodruff said. “The Forest Service chief has said these aren’t the biggest fires, the most intense fires we’re going to see,” Woodruff added. “We need to be adaptive, and consider which species we think are more important and how we are going to create situations with the resources we have to make it as viable as possible for those species.” ❖
The bad news is we lost habitat for lots of animals and those animal populations will be diminished for the next several years. The good part is in the next few years the flush of renewal, nutrients and good fertile soil will help the recovery turn into a wildlife bonanza.
While the impacts of the fires on the region’s mule deer have been the focus of much attention, wildlife biologists are also evaluating how other species fared in the wake of the wildfire. Western gray squirrels, listed by the state as threatened, live in large old ponderosa pines. Researchers from PBI studying the squirrels have found many squirrel nests in and around tributaries of the Methow River south of Twisp, such as Black Canyon — areas hit hard by the fire. “About 43 percent of the priority habitat for western gray squirrels in the Methow was impacted by the fire, and 52 percent of the burn area was composed of this type of habitat,” PBI’s post-fire assessment found. “A large portion of the known western gray squirrel sightings, hair-tube samples and nests in the Methow watershed are within the fire perimeter,” the assessment said. As a result of the damage to the gray squirrel’s habitat in the Methow Valley — one of the few strongholds for the species in the state — state wildlife officials may consider increasing protections by listing the species as endangered, or at least ensure it remains designated as a threatened species, Fitkin said. “We have to periodically do status reviews of species on the threatened list. This [fire] is going to cement moving gray squirrels to the top of the list for status review,” he said. Although their ponderosa pine habitat was badly damaged in the conflagration, gray squirrels are likely to benefit next spring from the plethora of mushrooms that grow in the wake of fires, Fitkin said. www.MethowValleyNews.com
“The species here are fire-adapted — including gray squirrels, which in the short-term are going to be hit pretty hard. Gray squirrels eat truffles and underground fungus. They’re going to have a healthy sup-
– Kent Woodruff, wildlife biologist with the U.S. Forest Service ply next spring,” Fitkin said. Another threatened species, the Columbian sharp-tailed grouse, is “one of the most impacted wildlife species in the Methow,” the PBI assessment found. Originally widely distributed throughout the West, the current range of sharp-tailed grouse in Washington is restricted to isolated populations in the north-central portion of the state, including the Methow Valley. The grouse live in shrubsteppe, meadow steppe, steppe, and riparian shrub. “About 87 percent of the priority habitat for sharp-tailed grouse in the Methow was impacted by the fire and 52 percent of the burn area was composed of this type of habitat,” PBI’s study said.
Cycle of loss and recovery
“This is a cycle of loss and recovery that’s happened for thousands of years. Over the course of the next 10 to 20 years the vegetation will be reorganized and species assemblages will be reorganized. There are going to be winners and losers,” said Forest Service biologist Woodruff. Songbirds and small mammals
said. Other short-term losers may be the “literally thousands of different kinds of insects that live in forest and rangeland ecosystems. The moment we wiped out 260,000 acres of vegetation, most of those insects that rely on that are gone — burned up or flown away … perhaps a bad sign for the rest of the food chain that relies on insects, such as bats and birds,” Woodruff said. Animals dependent on certain plants — such as the Brewer’s sparrow, which is closely associated with sagebrush — will also be impacted. “For five to 15 years we will likely be without as many Brewer’s sparrow,” Woodruff predicted. Among the “winners” in the postfire environment are animals that rely on periodic fire to maintain their habitat, Woodruff said. “There’s a bleak-looking landscape, but for some species that is Disneyland,” Woodruff said. Many animal species are adapted to severe fires that, like the Carlton Complex Fire, kill the majority of large trees in an area. Bark beetles and wood-boring beetles can detect heat and smoke from miles away and
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Two square blocks in Pateros were cordoned off by police tape two days after the town burned. Everywhere we went, the air was tinged with a sickly pall of smoke and the ground was still warm underfoot. photo bY marcY stamper
Newsgathering in a disaster Two of the News’ reporters tell the story of how the Methow Valley News staff improvised, adapted and relied on old-fashioned reporting to keep information coming online and in print By Marcy Stamper and Ann McCreary
HE Methow Valley News got quite a bit of attention this summer — we ended up on TV
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news and in several newspapers and magazines — in features about how a scrappy rural weekly managed to get the story out in the middle of a raging inferno with no phones, no power
and no shortage of chaos. From our vantage point, as journalists in the middle of this crucible, we were of course deeply committed to describing the effects of an unprecedented natural disaster on our community, our infrastructure and our landscape. But disseminating that story took considerable technical ingenuity and logistics. Darla Hussey, our designer and online media expert, devised deft workarounds to post updates on the Web (most notably, through the cumbersome process of typing stories — handwritten or dictated by reporters — into her phone, like
a text message, and uploading them to Facebook). Don Nelson, our editor and publisher, traveled hundreds of miles to find a generator so that we could actually power up our computers and produce a newspaper. These were essential ingredients and, in a world so accustomed to ever-present phone, email and Internet, it was hard for many to envision functioning without those conveniences. So these technical fixes made for an irresistible and worthwhile news story. But the fire also provided a salutary reminder about how to gather information that lets you tell a A publication of the Methow Valley News
compelling story that will (hopefully) reflect the experience of the people right in the middle of that story. Oldfashioned reporting is less telegenic, but it’s another essential ingredient. We normally have so much information at our fingertips that it can seem more efficient to sit at the computer than to go out looking for something newsworthy. And, if you need the minutes of a board meeting or a peer-reviewed study of climate change, the Web is unsurpassed. But if you want a visceral sense of a wildfire, there is no substitute for getting out and talking to people and experiencing the crisis firsthand. By the time the fire was raging and the power and phone service were out, we at the newspaper — like everyone in the Methow Valley — faced an uncertain situation. We didn’t know where our colleagues were, or if everyone was all right. Ultimately, we learned that some of our coworkers had been evacuated and one had lost his house in the fire. We, the paper’s two main reporters, were comparatively fortunate. Our homes were not directly in the path of the fire. We had water from the river and an irrigation ditch for basic hygiene, and a camp stove for basic nutrition. We even had old-fashioned landlines that didn’t require electricity, although, once phone lines burned, they too became useless. Admittedly, it was hard to know where to begin reporting. But we soon discovered that wherever we went, people had congregated. Some people were hoping to find out what was going on, others had been evacuated and had no place else to go, and many just needed to be with other people. So we roamed the valley, driving down roads we knew had been affected, checking on friends, and stopping at signboards to read the latest updates. Everywhere we went, we encountered people with stories to share. Some had harrowing accounts, some were dazed with relief, and others felt guilty that they had escaped unscathed. Although the sense of danger didn’t lift for weeks, as the fire spread and threatened different areas and new fires started, that first week was the worst. You could sense the www.MethowValleyNews.com
visceral panic throughout the valley, the alarming heat that barely let up at night, the terrifying wind, the eerie crackle in the air. There was the relentless drone of helicopters and sirens and, even though they were here to help, each one set off a fresh wave of panic. It was hard not to check on those massive fire plumes every few minutes, trying to figure out what was burning and where.
The first weekend
On Saturday morning, after the fire had engulfed vast stretches of the eastern and lower Methow Valley and part of Pateros, we joined a crowd trying to glean useful information from the signboard and maps posted by fire crews at the Community Center in Twisp. We talked to a public information officer who had just arrived from California and was himself trying to figure out what was happening and where. We ran into K.C. Mehaffey from the Wenatchee World, and brainstormed about setting up a temporary office in Wenatchee to put the newspaper out (since the World prints the Methow Valley News, it needed to get there anyway). We drove to our editor’s house and left a note on his door, and then split up to do more reporting. By then, Don had driven over to Seattle to get Internet service, buy a functional cell phone and arrange for a generator. While getting the news of the fire to our readers depended on solving many technical problems, it also involved serendipity and generosity. There were many examples of both. On Saturday, as Marcy was pulling into the parking lot at the Winthrop Barn to check on the Red Cross shelter, Amy Stork, the executive director of TwispWorks, pulled in behind her. “I’ve been following you all over. It’s so frustrating—no one has any information,” she said. “I have a working phone and I want to help you get the word out.” Amy graciously volunteered to drive while Marcy took notes and photos. Highway 153 had finally reopened, and the two headed south to see the destruction. We talked to people at the Carlton Store, which had become a 24-hour refuge. We met people who had
narrowly escaped the fire, tourists passing through to gawk at the damage, and others already mobilizing to help. Everywhere we went, the ground was still smoldering. It was warm underfoot when we got out to take photos. There were charred foundations next to green fields of alfalfa, melted fences, and power lines and transformers dangling in mid-air from partially incinerated electrical poles. The air was tinged with a sickly pall of smoke. Amy and Marcy ended up in Pateros, where two square blocks were cordoned off by police tape. A van from a Spokane TV station was taping interviews. Amy volunteered her Verizon phone (since Marcy’s AT&T phone didn’t work) so Marcy could dictate a story to Darla. It turned out Darla
and her family had been evacuated and were staying in a hotel in SedroWoolley, where she could get Internet service and coordinate online with Don. Darla typed up the story — at the hotel she even had the luxury of a computer with a keyboard — and posted it online. Amy devoted a huge amount of time and energy to helping disseminate the news. Because her family had owned a weekly newspaper in Vermont when she was growing up, she said she had a personal connection to helping get the news out. We took advantage of her generosity again the next day to transmit new installments on the fire and the power outage.
Back at the office
The emergency revealed some gaps in newspaper operations. With no
Methow Valley News publisher Don Nelson gassed up a generator the newspaper borrowed during the power outage. photo bY sallY gracie TRIAL BY FIRE 25
electricity, no one was showing up for work. We had no alternative system for communicating to make sure everyone was OK, or to figure out how we could get our job done. We also didn’t have a plan to salvage equipment and files from the office, where there is an irreplaceable record on computers, back-up drives and 113 years of highly flammable newspapers. We are incredibly lucky this didn’t prove necessary. Even though we were operating in a world where our traditional means of communication had broken down, it took a while to break old habits. We spent a lot of time and energy figuring out how to type up stories and post them online, which created a vital link for people outside the Methow, and for those few in the valley who could access the Internet. But it took a while to realize that it was also important to inform the population in the valley who felt so cut off from current information. (Some residents may recall how infuriating it was to go to a fire information meeting and be directed to the Carlton Complex website for the most up-to-date information.) Around here, people were communicating in person and by posting notes. On Sunday, it finally occurred to us to tape hand-written news highlights on the newspaper’s office door. On Monday morning, the process started coming together. Don arrived with a generator, a working cell phone and a lot of battery-operated lanterns. Darla connected computers and cobbled together an Internet connection, and we scored a few working phones, some lent by the Floyd Company. We all got to work typing up our notes and downloading hundreds of photos and spent the next
two days producing the news section of the paper — a significantly smaller version than usual. Tyson Kellie, one of our sales associates, drove the files on a thumb drive to Wenatchee (since they could not be sent electronically) to be printed on our regular schedule. Once things had “stabilized,” the reporting changed, too. There was a daily briefing at the fire camp, where public information officers decked out in fire gear accommodated TV news crews by delivering the day’s update in front of a huge fire map. The information officers were knowledgeable and professional — an excellent source of official information — but it was official information. Keeping people informed expanded beyond our usual roles because we were many people’s only point of contact. As the administrator of our Facebook page, Darla spent countless hours sifting through posts from people desperate to find out if their friends or relatives had survived or eager to donate to fire victims. Some even called and asked her to drive out and personally check on their property. She became a de facto counselor as well as a clearinghouse for information, and worked hard to discern rumor from fact. Although the initial emergency has passed, the story of this fire continues as people rebuild and the entire ecosystem — people, animals, plants, land — recovers. We remain anxious about spring snowmelt and the potential for more devastating mudslides. Every week or two, we receive hundreds — sometimes thousands — of pages of documents from the Department of Natural Resources, part of the 26 file boxes they have compiled
Handwritten stories like these were handed to, or dictated to, the only staff member with a Verizon phone, and then painstakingly typed on the smartphone’s keyboard in order to post updates via Facebook. photo bY darla husseY about the fire. We are sifting through these records — weather forecasts and red flag warnings, crew and equipment deployment lists, dispatch logs — in the hope that the records will provide additional insights into what happened. In a time when communication was so disrupted and events were so uncertain, our community was
desperate for information. Putting out the paper felt like a pressing need to those of us involved in reporting news, and the idea of missing an issue couldn’t be contemplated. Gathering that news, editing it and laying it out — tasks normally rather routine — will be an indelible part of our memory and experience of the summer of 2014. ❖
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26 TRIAL BY FIRE
A publication of the Methow Valley News
Fanning the flames Climate change is clearly linked to larger, fiercer wildfires
was fairly early in the year. We usually think about big fires in August,” he said. “It might be a bit of a harbinger of things to come. Early season fires and big fires might be the new normal,” Peterson said.
More fires, bigger fires By Ann McCreary
HE Carlton Complex Fire was the largest wildfire in Washington’s history, and contributed to a 2014 fire season that was the most destructive and costly on record for the state. Was the massive Carlton Complex an anomaly or was it, as a wildfire researcher said, “a harbinger of things to come” on a warming planet? While researchers and policy makers are reluctant to link individual wildfires to climate change, the Carlton Complex and fires like it illustrate trends predicted by a growing body of climate change research — longer fire seasons with larger fires that burn more intensely. “Any one fire can’t be an indicator of climate change. It’s going to take a few decades for that to play out,” said David Peterson, a research biologist who studies wildfires and climate change. Wildfires have always been a natural and necessary part of the western landscape, but climate change is altering factors that affect wildfire behavior, said Peterson, who is affiliated with the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Research Station and is a professor at the University of Washington. “One of the things that is changing is how the climate will be affecting weather on a year-to-year basis,” Peterson said. Those changes are expected to produce “extreme conditions” that cause big fires, as well as fire seasons that begin earlier and end later. “The longer fire season seems to be happening already,” Peterson said. “The Carlton Complex is probably a good example of that, because that www.MethowValleyNews.com
The year 2014 saw 645 square miles burned in Washington, almost seven times the five-year average of 95 square miles, according to the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The Carlton Complex Fire, which burned 268,764 acres (420 square miles) accounted for about two-thirds of the total area burned in 2014. “If you remember back to the Tripod Fire [which burned 175,000 acres in 2006] there were very extreme conditions. That shows what can happen if you have the right conditions. That will become more common,” Peterson said. “Since 2000 we have had many fires of 200,000 acres or more, and those have been fairly uncommon historically,” Peterson said. “By mid-century, looking at historical data for the last 100 years, we expect two to three times as many big fires as previously,” he said. In July 2014, the same month that the Carlton Complex Fire raged through the Methow Valley, a study released by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) projected that rising temperatures — which are rising more rapidly in the American West than the global average — are “producing hotter, drier conditions that contribute to more larger fires and longer fire seasons in the American West today.” The annual number of large wildfires on federally managed lands in the 11 western states increased by more than 75 percent — from 140 in the period from 1980-1989, to 250 from 2000-2009, said the UCS study, titled “Playing with Fire.” As temperatures rise, the fire season in the West has expanded from five months on average in the 1970s to seven months in 2014, a trend that
graphic courtesY the union of concerned scientists
is expected to continue with increasing temperatures. The National Research Council reported that for every degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) of temperature increase, the size of the area burned in the western United States could quadruple. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), summer temperatures in western North America could increase 3.6 degrees to 9 degrees Fahrenheit by the middle of this century. In the Northwest, the average annual temperature has risen over the last century by 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit, with increases in some areas of up to 4 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA projects temperatures will rise in the Northwest by 3 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of this century.
Links to wildfires
Rising temperatures have been strongly linked in numerous studies to increases in numbers and size of wildfires. The higher temperatures lead to a variety of factors that impact wildfires including lower snow pack and earlier snowmelt, increased insect infestations, drought, longer fire seasons, and drier forests and
grasslands that are easier to ignite and more likely to burn. In the case of the Carlton Complex, embers from the fire had a 100 percent chance of ignition due to extremely low humidity and high temperatures in the 90s and 100s, according to fire behavior experts called in to try to manage the disaster. Michael Liu, Methow District ranger for the U.S. Forest Service in Winthrop, said the area was experiencing a “seasonal drought” — a period of little rain and high temperatures — leading up to the Carlton Complex wildfire. “It’s pretty hard to say if what we saw was due to climate change or one of those 200-year events,” Liu said. “But that seasonal drought could be an indicator of what may come with a climate change scenario. If predictions are right and things get warmer and drier, the effects of seasonal drought could become more common.” Changes in weather patterns are anticipated as a result of climate change, Peterson said. “We know that it’s going to get warmer, and one component of that is weather extremes like drought that set the stage for fire,” he said. “Droughts will be more frequent and more severe. We TRIAL BY FIRE 27
will have the conditions more often that support these fires.” Higher temperatures are projected to cause more precipitation to fall as rain instead of snow, which could decrease the snow pack by as much as 40 percent in the Cascade mountains by the 2040s, the EPA reported. Warmer temperatures are also linked to earlier snow pack melt. While the correlation between wildfires and earlier snow pack melt is still being investigated, research has shown that between 1970-2003, years that had early snowmelt corresponded to years with much higher wildfire frequency, according to a report by Climate Central, an organization that conducts research on climate change. The spread of bark beetles and other pests across western forests is also linked to warmer temperatures. Milder winters allow more insects to survive and hotter summers have accelerated the insects’ life cycle, Climate Central reported. Researchers project that as the planet warms, the outbreak and spread of these insects will increase and could heighten wildfire activity. As more trees die from beetle infestation, there is more woody debris left on the forest floor, which means that there is more fuel available for burning in the short term. Other research however, has shown over the long term forests destroyed by beetle infestation may not be any more likely to burn than healthy forests, the Climate Central report said. Climate Central analyzed 42 years of U.S. Forest Service records on wildfires. On average, it found that wildfires burn twice as much land each year as they did 40 years ago. The frequency of very large fires like the Carlton Complex — sometimes termed “megafires” — is also increasing in the West, Climate Central said. Compared to the average year in the 1970s, the number of fires greater than 25,000 acres has increased five-fold, and there are seven times the number of fires bigger than 10,000 acres today than 40 years ago. Wildfires have become more intense as a result of human activity, including livestock grazing that reduces grasslands that might otherwise ignite and fuel smaller, 28 TRIAL BY FIRE
low-intensity wildfires, according to an article by Renee Cho of The Earth Institute at Columbia University. Policies “emphasizing fire suppression over forest management and fire prevention have predominated, eliminating the small, less intense fires that used to clear out dead vegetation,” Cho wrote. The cost of fighting the growing number of wildfires is rising just like the temperatures. The annual cost of fighting wildfires has exceeded $1 billion since 2000, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Washington state spent more than $81 million in 2014 fighting wildfires, according to DNR. The cost of fighting the Carlton Complex Fire alone, for all agencies involved, is estimated at $69.4 million. Restoration and recovery costs on private, state and federal lands burned by the Carlton Complex Fire are estimated at more than $4.3 million. Those recovery costs are compounded by damage to the local economy, damage to infrastructure
the Carlton Complex Fire burned 230 single-family homes, 53 cabins, and numerous outbuildings. Structure losses for the Carlton Complex and Rising Eagle Road Fire total $29.5 million. “Over 1.2 million homes — with a combined estimated value of more than $189 billion — across 13 western states are at high or very high risk of wildfires,” according to “Playing with Fire.” Protecting those people and homes becomes a priority for state and federal agencies, and adds expense to fighting wildfires.
Living on the edge
The Carlton Complex Fire is an example of these concerns. “There are a lot of private lands that abut Forest Service land,” Liu said. “For instance, Libby Creek and Gold Creek are areas where we have residences that run up into national forest land. The private property and homes in those areas were high values we were trying to protect.” With so many homes on the urban-wildland interface around the
Over 1.2 million homes — with a combined estimated value of more than $189 billion — across 13 western states are at high or very high risk of wildfires. —“Playing with Fire,” a 2014 study by the Union of Concerned Scientists (roads, waters systems, powerlines), losses resulting from floods and mudslides following wildfire, loss of tourism, and decreased real estate values. Wildfire costs are increasing in areas like the Methow Valley, where more and more homes are built near wildlands. Although the valley’s most populated areas — the towns of Twisp and Winthrop — were spared,
country, more resources need to be devoted on state and national levels to reducing wildfire risk and maintaining healthy forests, rather than suppressing wildfire, the UCS report said. However, the opposite appears to be taking place. “Worsening wildfire seasons are forcing federal agencies to shift budgets from investments in long-term fire management and forest health to
fire suppression,” according to UCS. The report recommended mandatory building codes and zoning laws at state and local levels to reduce wildfire risks, and “moving more responsibility for mitigating wildfire risks and costs to homeowners and local communities to incentivize fireproofing measures — and charging insurance premiums that reflect the true danger to properties.” “We’re not going to prevent fire, the only thing we can control is the fuel” that feeds them, Peterson said. “There’s kind of a changing attitude, to not so much resist fire, but to live with fire,” Peterson said. “Community efforts (to mitigate risks) can be very effective at reducing damage,” he said. “It will be impossible to prevent any losses of homes or structures, but we can probably reduce that. For most of eastern Washington, you need to live with fire,” Peterson said. In an economic analysis of wildfires, the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) said wildfires now cost the United States between $20 billion and $125 billion a year. With climate change, that number is expected to rise dramatically. While climate change impacts the severity and frequency of wildfires, wildfires may also contribute to global warming, researchers say. Healthy forests normally absorb carbon dioxide, known as carbon sequestration. But wildfires release carbon dioxide from vegetation and soils into the atmosphere, trapping more heat. “Models suggest that fires and other natural disturbances affected by climate change will weaken forests’ global carbon sequestration capabilities and potentially turn them into a net carbon emission source,” said the NRDC report, “Flammable Planet.” The 2014 IPCC report cites evidence indicating that Canadian forests now emit more carbon than they store. This projected “feedback loop” means that wildfires like the Carlton Complex may not only be a result of climate change, but also a contributor to global warming. “Additional and more intense wildfires may increase the rate of climate change … further increasing temperatures and future wildfire risk,” the NRDC report said. ❖ A publication of the Methow Valley News
From the ground up Home rebuilding efforts will begin in earnest next spring By Ann McCreary
concerted effort to begin rebuilding homes lost in the Carlton Complex Fire will begin next spring and the people, money and resources needed to carry out the rebuilding campaign are being gathered. A survey conducted in November of people who lost homes in the July wildfires identified 49 households that were uninsured or underinsured, and who need help to rebuild their homes. Estimated costs to replace those homes and contents is $6.3 million, according to the survey by World Renew, a faith-based organization that gathers data to assist in recovery after disaster. World Renew came to the Methow Valley, and the towns of Okanogan and Pateros to contact people about housing and determine their recovery needs. The rebuilding process will be led by the Carlton Complex Long Term Recovery Group (LTRG), a nonprofit organization formed in the wake of the fire to address long-term community needs and the rebuilding of homes and other structures. The LTRG will have three paid employees on staff by early 2015 to coordinate the homebuilding process, said Jon Wyss, chairman of the LTRG. “We plan to start rebuilding in March,” Wyss said. “This rebuild team is a vital investment that will allow us to maximize contributions from the private and public sector for the rebuilding of homes lost in the Carlton Complex fires.” The LTRG will partner with the Community Foundation of North Central Washington, which will www.MethowValleyNews.com
The community of Alta Lake suffered major losses – 52 homes there burned, the vast majority full-time residences. By late October, some people had already made significant progress in rebuilding. photo bY marcY stamper accept tax-deductible donations toward the rebuilding and recovery efforts, Wyss said. Carlene Anders, who led the Long Term Recovery Organization for the Brewster/Pateros area, was chosen by the LTRG board to lead the rebuilding team. A volunteer coordinator and a construction manager are expected to be hired by Januaryt, Wyss said. The LTRG has received $200,000 from an anonymous donor to support the rebuilding program, Wyss said. That donation is anticipated to provide a one-year budget. The LTRG is working to raise an additional $300,000 by early 2015 “to place an on-the-ground team for two years to coordinate the rebuilding,” Wyss said. “We’re going to beg, plead, knock on doors. We’re going to turn over every stone” to raise the funds, he said. How many houses will be rebuilt, how quickly, and for whom are questions that LTRG will be addressing in coming months. “We will work closely with disaster case managers and the Long Term Recovery Organizations in Pateros/
Brewster and the Methow Valley to set up the criteria in the near future that will answer those questions,” Wyss said. Citizen input on how that portion of the process should work is welcomed by the LTRG, he said. He encouraged people to contact the LTRG at (509) 433-7260 with ideas. “Based on fundraising and other low income loans we will build as many homes as possible,” Anders said. “Like building a mosaic, we have to have most of the pieces first to formulate a design of how it will look. We are still collecting all of the raw components,” she said.
The wildfires burned 292 singlefamily homes and cabins, according to the Okanogan County assessor. It is estimated that about 45 percent were uninsured. While looking ahead toward construction in spring, leaders of the recovery effort are still working to ensure that people who were left without homes after fires and floods
last summer have shelter and essential needs met. Disaster case managers in the Methow Valley, Brewster and Pateros, and Okanogan have been working with fire and flood victims to address their needs for shelter, clothing, furnishings, food, snow tires — whatever will help them get back on their feet. Case managers are handling an estimated 160 cases overall, with about 53 of them in the Methow Valley. As of late fall, about 13 clients from the valley had received what they needed to stabilize their lives, and 40 cases were still considered “open,” meaning there are still outstanding needs to be met, said Ron Whitesides, program services director for Okanogan County Community Action Council in Okanogan, which oversees the case management. About a dozen people who lost homes in the Methow Valley have found temporary rentals, Whitesides said. Other people are staying with friends, families, neighbors — “in a basement, or on a second floor,” he said. “We know some are in RVs they have TRIAL BY FIRE 29
winterized — some have been gifted, loaned or rented,” Whitesides said. “Four of our clients in the Methow are constructing small one-room cabins. We’re helping them get them ready” for winter, he said. The cabins are temporary quarters, until they can start rebuilding in the spring. Whitesides said he is aware of five fire victims from the Methow Valley who have left the area. Some moved to other communities in Okanogan County and one relocated to Cashmere. “We helped people relocate to New Mexico, Louisiana, Tennessee,” he said. They were provided assistance getting to their destination, including airline tickets, gas, and money to rent a moving truck. “Those that left were typically elderly. Some were renters whose rental burned down,” Whitesides said. Methow Valley residents who lost homes in the fire are likely to be in a somewhat better situation than people in other areas affected by the fire, because homes in the Methow are more likely to be insured, according to Hank Cramer, who leads Methow Valley Long Term Recovery — the local recovery group. In Pateros and Brewster, recovery workers are more concerned about people burned out of their homes. “We’ve got people living in some tough situations,” including agricultural housing, said Anders of the Pateros/Brewster LTRO. “But we’ve got some tough people,” she said. “It’s been difficult for renters. They have been helped out most by the Red Cross,” which has provided assistance such as rental deposits and first month payments, Anders said. While many people sought help through disaster case managers to obtain housing and fill other needs in the weeks after the fires and floods,
“we know more people will come forward,” said Wyss. “We had people, after the first snow and freeze, who came in for the first time, who we had never seen before, and it was three months after the event,” Wyss said.
A special fire-relief fund was created to meet needs that aren’t generally covered by insurance, loans or other sources. Representatives from funding organizations and nonprofits began meeting in October to consider requests presented by area case managers. The needs range from weatherization, building materials, closing costs for a loan, or replacing tools or snow tires lost in the fire. Called the “unmet needs roundtable,” the group includes the Red Cross, Community Foundation, Room One, Salvation Army, and a variety of regional and national faith-based organizations. Disaster case managers try to tap all other resources, such as insurance, loan programs and volunteers, before bringing requests to the unmet needs roundtable. The case manager will then present a client’s needs — the client is not identified — to the weekly roundtable meeting, said Whitesides. “People [at the roundtable] will raise their hands and say, ‘I’ll take care of the woodstove,’” he said. Sometimes several groups will contribute to meet the full amount of a request. Most awards are in the hundreds or thousands of dollars. Larger needs such as housing will be addressed by the LTRG’s rebuilding program. By year’s end more than a dozen people had received help through the unmet needs roundtable.
We are working to coordinate as many volunteers and donated supplies as possible. — Carlene Anders, Executive Director Carlton Complex Long Term Recovery Group 30 TRIAL BY FIRE
Specially trained volunteers with Southern Baptist Convention Disaster Relief cleaned up fire damage at a site on Finley Canyon, even painstakingly sifting through the rubble to unearth items with meaning for the homeowners. The group is one of many volunteer organizations helping with site preparation and rebuilding. photo bY marcY stamper
The four disaster case managers were hired in September through funding provided by the Community Foundation and Community Action Council. The funding for those positions will run out in March, but their services will be needed long after that, said Wyss. Raising money to keep them on the job is “critical,” he said. The additional $300,000 being sought by the LTRG by early 2015 will not provide for the case managers. “We will have to raise additional funds to keep the case managers through recovery efforts as well as the organizational infrastructure to manage the rebuild and reconstruction process,” Wyss said. The organizational needs include salaries for the rebuild team, an office, phone, Internet, mileage, and other costs associated with conducting the housing reconstruction over the next two years, Wyss said. North Cascades Bank has agreed to support the rebuilding effort with a $2 million fund, administered through Habitat for Humanity, that will provide homeowners low interest loans of 2 percent over 30 years, Wyss said. Based on a home that costs
$100,000 to build, that would mean a monthly payment of about $500 — less than the cost of most rentals, Wyss said. Once the rebuild team is in place, fundraising will be directed at securing building materials needed for the homes, as well as funds to pay specialty tradespeople such as concrete contractors, plumbers and electricians, Wyss said. The LTRG estimates rebuilding costs to exceed $7 million. The money will need to come from a wide range of sources, including individual and corporate donations, as well as federal and state funding, Wyss said. “We have to raise money outside of Washington … and we need help from the [state] Legislature. They play a critical role in help us recover. We need federal help from Housing and Urban Development. We’re working very closely with our legislators, both state and federal,” Wyss said. People interested in donating should contact the Community Foundation of North Central Washington at (509) 663-7716.
Volunteer Organizations Active In Disaster A significant part of the work of rebuilding the homes is expected A publication of the Methow Valley News
to be done by Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD), a national coalition of charitable and faith-based organizations dedicated to helping disaster-stricken communities rebuild. The “VOADs” have already spent lots of time in the Methow Valley, Pateros, Brewster and Okanogan helping with the initial steps of recovery. The survey of housing needs conducted in November by World Renew, a VOAD, is an example of the services already provided to help the LTRG plan the rebuilding campaign. The different VOADs bring different specialties, said Anders, who met with VOAD representatives in Seattle in early December. “Mennonites are framing experts. Methodists are experts at finishing work and repairs. Catholic Charities are experts in case management. Everyone has a kind of niche in the national VOAD organization,” Anders said. “The LTRG is working to create the relationship with those folks to come in and have an understanding of what they’re going to do and how they’re going to do it,” Anders said. “We are working to coordinate as many volunteers and donated supplies as possible.” Wyss said Mennonite Disaster Service has developed a standard twobedroom, one bathroom house that requires about $40,000 in materials, based on pricing conducted by the LTRG. When completed with electricity, plumbing and heating systems, the total cost is $80,000-$100,000, Wyss said. If VOAD partners contribute much of the construction labor, the cost of rebuilding can be held down and more houses built, Wyss said. “The
New construction at Alta Lake contrasted with the burnt trees and landscape around it. photo bY marcY stamper number of homes [built] is dependent on the amount of funding,” he said. While the VOAD groups are working on the rebuilding projects, they will be living here and spending money in the local economy and contributing to its recovery in that way as well, Wyss added. The loss of so many single family and rental units has exacerbated an already critical shortage of affordable rental units in this area. Post-fire assessments show 30 rental properties destroyed in a market that was already severely constrained in Okanogan County. People involved in the recovery effort see the rebuilding projects as
an opportunity to try to address this need, he said. “We’re talking with one VOAD about doing a multi-family housing unit within the burn area. They would file the initial application with the state Department of Commerce,” he said.
Long-term means long-term
It will take years to rebuild the lost homes, and more than that for the communities and landscape damaged by the Carlton Complex fire to recover, Wyss said. “We’re looking at a minimum of five years, maximum of 10,” he predicted.
And perhaps it depends how “recovery” is defined, he added. “What is recovery? Is it having the 300 homes built? It is having housing solutions solved for the county as a whole? Is it getting multi-family housing in the Methow and Pateros? Is it getting the thousands of miles of fence line for cattle and deer rebuilt? Is it replanting the forests? Is it avoiding landslides next spring?” Wyss asked. “Recovery is a relative term, because this fire was so massive that even grasping the scope of recovery has been a challenge — because every day there’s something new that we weren’t aware of before.” ❖
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The fires had barely cooled before new life began emerging from the ashes. photo bY steve mitchell 32 TRIAL BY FIRE
A publication of the Methow Valley News
Second spring The scorched landscape will make a dramatic comeback By Ann McCreary
ROUND seared by the Carlton Complex Fire had barely cooled before the first signs of recovery emerged from the charred landscape. Only two weeks after firestorms consumed 255,181 acres, bright green shoots and leaves of native grasses, elderberry bushes, Western sumac, lupine and yarrow began poking through the blackened, ashcovered soil. Some people called the signs of rebirth a “second spring.” As Methow Valley residents struggled to recover from their losses and begin rebuilding their communities, the valley’s natural communities were already well on their way to recovery. Many residents wondered, though, whether they needed to give nature a hand in recovering from wildfire. Local conservationists and biologists say that what the valley needs is patience from its human inhabitants. “The land is going to heal just fine,” said Rob Crandall of Methow Natives, a nursery specializing in the propagation of plants native to the Methow Valley. “There have been fires for thousands of years in the Methow. The ecosystems are adapted to fire,” Crandall said. “Watch what happens and see what recovers. Be patient with nature and see what it can do on its own,” said Peter Morrison of Pacific Biodiversity Institute (PBI), which has conducted numerous studies on the impact of wildfires. “For a lot of species, in 10 years the habitat will be much better. The fire is not a totally negative thing from www.MethowValleyNews.com
the perspective of wildlife or ecosystems,” Morrison said.
Changing the landscape
The Carlton Complex Fire started as four separate fires that merged into an enormous firestorm, burning primarily though shrub-steppe habitat, grasslands and other nonforested areas. A post-fire assessment by PBI found that more than 61 percent of the burn area had shrub-steppe vegetation, and about 25 percent was forested with ponderosa pine and Douglas fir trees, often called “dry forests.” “The dominant vegetation types in the fire area (shrub-steppe and dry forests) are considered fire-adapted and fire-dependent ecosystems,” the PBI report said. “These ecosystems need regular fire to maintain healthy composition and structure. The lack of fire has been documented to be a major cause of decline in the ecosystem health in these areas. “Therefore … areas that burned in the fire may well experience a significant long-term benefit from the fire from the perspective of ecosystem
health,” PBI said. Decades of fire suppression have changed the character of the Methow Valley landscape from a grass-dominated ecosystem to a shrub-dominated ecosystem, Morrison said. In areas similar to the Methow Valley that have experienced wildfires, fire has transformed shrub-steppe to a more grass-dominated ecosystem, Morrison said. That shift would return the valley to conditions more similar to those that existed in the early 1800s, before extensive grazing and fire suppression altered the natural landscape, Morrison said. The presence of lots of mature bitterbrush “is a good indication of fire suppression or fire exclusion,” said Susan Prichard, a University of Washington research scientist specializing in fire ecology. “Our bunch grass communities and the iconic balsamroot — fire will benefit them. Bitterbrush was getting too much of a foothold compared to historic conditions,” Prichard said. Bitterbrush will grow back, and the new plants will contain more nutrients than the older, woody bushes. And the burned vegetation
“This fire was winddriven and moved across the ground really fast. And that’s important because it means we should see recovery of some vegetative components fairly quickly. We should see an explosion of grass and forbs next spring,” — Scott Fitkin, wildlife biologist with Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife
will restore nutrients into the soil to support regrowth, Morrison said. “It’s like putting a lot of fertilizer into the soil,” he said.
The mid-summer wildfires occurred at a time that was favorable for the survival of many plants, Morrison said. “Most of the plants had already bloomed, put their photosynthetic energy into their roots and gone dormant. That’s one of the reasons we saw such a good response” in the fall when many plants that appeared burned beyond hope showed new greenery, he said. Shrubs preferred by deer may take years to fully re-establish in burned areas, said Scott Fitkin, a wildlife biologist with Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW). The amount of time needed will depend on various factors including how hot the fires burned in various areas, weather and soil composition. “When people talk about a fire burning really hot, you have to define how far down the fire sterilized the soil. Within the burn perimeter, the fire consumed nearly all the vegetation. Yet in many areas the fire is characterized as low to moderate intensity,” Fitkin said. “This fire was wind-driven and moved across the ground really fast. And that’s important because it means we should see recovery of some vegetative components fairly quickly. We should see an explosion of grass and forbs next spring,” Fitkin said. The wildfire will likely provide a boost to one of the key elements of healthy wildlife populations — varied habitat. “After a fire in the shrub-steppe, the shrub component is reduced to near zero, while grass, annual and perennial plants proliferate,” Dana Visalli, a local naturalist, wrote in The Methow Naturalist. “In a Douglas fir ghetto that burns up, ponderosa pines will appear if seeds are present, as they need sunlight and mineral soil to germinate. TRIAL BY FIRE 33
Both pines and Douglas firs would be thinned by succeeding ground fires if they were allowed to burn, resulting in an open forest with diverse undergrowth that would support diverse animal life,” Visalli wrote.
Decades to recover
While conservationists generally advise allowing nature to follow its own course toward recovery after the fires, they make exception for areas that were disturbed as a result of fire suppression activities and that may take decades to recover. More than 150 miles of fire lines were cleared by bulldozers, and about 27 miles of hand lines were dug while fighting the fire. The earth on those
lines is scraped down to mineral soil, leaving scars that are highly susceptible to invasion by non-native species and noxious weeds, which establish themselves before slower-growing native plants. The Methow Conservancy led an effort to reseed fire lines and areas around powerlines where the ground was disturbed when equipment was brought in to repair burned poles and lines. Before snow fell in November, the Conservancy sponsored a “seed mob” event during which about 100 volunteers visited several sites around the valley to spread seed along fire lines, in burned riparian areas, and around power poles that were replaced.
% of Total Carlton Complex Burn Area
.31 % .19%
Local State Federal Private
chart bY darla husseY With data from burned area emergencY response data report
cutline info: Pie chart showing Okanogan County, WA Land Ownership by Agency within Carlton Complex Perimeter (Burned Acre Calculations Derived from BAER Data Report)
Flooding is an ongoing concern. photo bY darla husseY
This is our community. And as the fires raged, we joined together to get back on our feet in the Methow Valley. We worked around the clock and side by side, in our neighborhoods, up on telephone poles and in our backyards helping to make sure we recovered stronger than ever. Because for us, it isn’t just where we work, it’s home.
Bart Knoll, CenturyLink Technician 34 TRIAL BY FIRE
A publication of the Methow Valley News
In the midst of charred bitterbrush in Pipestone Canyon, new autumn growth offers a bright sign of the landscape’s natural recovery from fire. photo bY ann mccrearY
The Okanogan Conservation District estimates that there are about 2,000 private landowners with property in the fire perimeter, and the organization has been working to assist them to mitigate damage to their land resulting from the fire. The district acts as a clearinghouse for private landowners seeing assistance with issues such as restoration of grazing lands, repair of fences and irrigation systems, restoration of riparian trees and shrubs, reseeding and erosion control. By the end of November, district staff had received almost 200 requests for assistance and had conducted about 180 site visits to landowners to assess their needs, said Terry Williamson, conservation
planner. The Conservation District works with an array of local, state and federal agencies and organizations to try to locate funding for technical and financial assistance, Williamson said. Unfortunately, “existing systems are not set up well to provide fast assistance on the landscape,” said Kirsten Cook, education and outreach coordinator for the Conservation District. “We’ve been telling people if you need to have [something] done, don’t wait for us. It would be nice, in a perfect world, if the state [had] an emergency fund to deal with stuff like this.”
Erosion, flooding concerns
As became abundantly clear last
Development located at mouth of drainage. Humans tend to develop these areas because they are flatter… but they are flatter because of all the material that’s been deposited by water flowing down these drainages for millennia. In a flood event, water will probably follow this drainage again, probably in much larger volumes than have been seen since this area was developed.
Water running down slope. Flows will increase in volume depending on the amount of area being drained. Increased slope will increase speed and potential to pick up debris.
It is important to be aware of where homes are located in relation to nearby drainages. graphic courtesY of the oKanogan conservation district www.MethowValleyNews.com
TRIAL BY FIRE 35
August, when summer rainstorms brought down tons of mud and sediment from burned hillsides and caused widespread damage, the wildfire left in its wake an extreme risk of erosion and debris flow. That risk is predicted to last for several years. The intense fire not only destroyed vegetation that stabilizes soil on hillsides, but in some areas scorched soils so badly that they became “hydrophobic” — or water resistant. As fire moves across the surface of the ground, the combustion of vegetation creates a gas that penetrates the soil and then condenses into a water-repellant substance. “That’s what makes the rain so dangerous,” said Craig Nelson, Conservation District manager. “It’s like pouring water on a crayon.” The combination of ash and water after wildfire adds another risk factor for dangerous debris flows because it creates a mixture that is “like runny cement,” Nelson said. “The ash will change the specific density of water. Water that’s mixed with ash now has even greater power because it can pick up and float things that normally wouldn’t float,” he said. A Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) report released in September identified threats to people, property and resources as a result of the wildfire and erosion potential. Conducted by a multi-agency team, the BAER report recommended $2.8 million in emergency stabilization and long-term recovery measures. Those measures include installing flood diversion dikes and berms to protect homes and property, constructing dips in roadways to channel runoff and reinforcing roadside shoulders and slopes, placing flood warning signs along roads and highways, seeding burned slopes to restore vegetation and discourage invasive weeds, and monitoring and repairing dams and ponds that are at risk of failing during high runoff. “With the Carlton Complex we had a massive disturbance. This is a pattern that has happened since time immemorial on this landscape,” said Cook. “We’re getting a front-row seat on how new landforms are created through flood events and erosion. The trouble is we now have people in the way.” 36 TRIAL BY FIRE
Recent fires in the vicinity of the area burned by the Carlton Complex Fire. map provided bY susan prichard A publication of the Methow Valley News
Soil Burn Severity Overview
Upper Beaver Creek
South Fork Beaver Creek Thompson Creek
Lower Beaver Creek
Lower Loup Loup Creek
Chiliwist Creek Benson Creek
Texas Creek Swamp Creek
French Creek Starzman Lake
McFarland Creek South Fork Gold Creek
Indian Dan Creek
Watson Draw Squaw Creek
Black Canyon Creek
20 Miles Sources: Esri, DeLorme, USGS, NPS, Sources: Esri, USGS, NOAA
Fire Perimeter HUC 12 Boundaries
Areas of high burn severity may be at higher risk of erosion and runoff. graphic from the burned area emergencY response report www.MethowValleyNews.com
The enormous changes in erosion potential were described in the BAER study, which compared the sediment potential in drainages before and after the fire, based on a scenario for a 25-year, one-hour storm depositing .77 inches of precipitation. For example, Benson Creek — one of the most heavily burned drainages — would see the amount of sediment under that scenario increase from nine tons of sediment before the fire to 1,101 tons after the fire — an increase of 11,581 percent. The report also assessed the extent and severity of the fires in various drainages that pose risk of erosion and run-off. High-severity fire means that all or nearly all ground cover and surface organic matter is gone, only bare soil or ash is left, soil structure and stability is damaged or destroyed, and the soil may have become water-repellant. In Benson Creek 85 percent (20,746 acres) of the total acreage was burned and 5,027 acres — about one-fourth — were categorized as high-burn severity. In the Aug. 21 rainstorm, Benson Creek was among the drainages that produced massive mud flows, damaging homes, highways and infrastructure. In Texas Creek 91 percent (6,524 acres) burned, with 286 acres highseverity; in Cow Creek, 100 percent burned (3,689 acres), 507 acres high-severity. Areas identified in the BAER report as having the highest risk of flooding and runoff to homes and outbuildings include Benson, Finley, Canyon, Cow, Texas, French, Frazer, Beaver, Squaw, Gold and McFarland creek drainages, and Davis and Black canyons. A survey of properties conducted after the fire found about 40 homes in the burned area to be at high risk of damage from future erosion, but potentially defensible. A federal program called the Emergency Watershed Protection Program provides funding to construct diversion structures, such as earthen dikes or water bars, to protect homes that qualify as threatened but defensible. About 14 property owners signed up for the program, and the Conservation District contracted with a Wenatchee construction company in TRIAL BY FIRE 37
late November to install diversionary structures. The district had hoped to complete work before winter, but cold weather in late November froze the ground and delayed the projects until next spring, probably May, Cook said. “Obviously we would have preferred to have them go in now, but the new time frame should still provide protection from the biggest threat, the summer thunderstorms,” Cook said in early December.
New rain gauges
The district also worked with the National Weather Service and the state Department of Ecology to install 17 new rain gauges within the Carlton Complex Fire perimeter to improve flash flood warnings. Prior to the August floods, only three gauges were in place. The new gauges are programmed to detect rain amounts that pose a threat and to send continual reports to the National Weather Service in Spokane, which can then issue sitespecific flash flood warnings. “The biggest danger is in the summer thunderstorms for the next couple of years,” said Williamson. “People in very precarious locations need to be aware that those flood events can still happen.” But the flood potential is projected to last until 2019, and that worries Williamson. “I wake up panicked in the middle of the night thinking, ‘what will happen in 2017?’ People will have forgotten about it,” Williamson said. The Conservation District advises homeowners to carefully assess the risk of flooding or mudslides at their home. “People need to look at a topographical map and think, when it rains, where does the water go? If
your house is at the bottom of slopes, especially multiple slopes, it could be at risk,” Cook said. Those people should contact a real estate agent to obtain National Flood Insurance Program home insurance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Cook said. And above all, she said, people who live in or near drainages or at the bottom of burned slopes should “keep an eye to the sky” and be prepared to move to higher ground if there is any potential of flooding, the Conservation District advises.
Not a moonscape forever
Fire researcher Prichard has studied the 2006 Tripod Fire to determine how forest treatments, such as thinning and prescribed burning, influence burn severity in wildfires, and hopes to conduct similar studies of the Carlton Complex Fire. “The Tripod and Carlton Complex are fairly unique in how much burned at high severity, meaning most trees died,” Prichard said. “The Carlton Complex represents the greatest test we could have in this area for fuel treatment effectiveness.” Fed by high temperatures and wind, the Carlton Complex Fire developed a towering plume that “could have been raining down embers miles in advance of the fire,” Prichard said. As the firestorm roared down the valley the “embers of that preheated plume engaged the canopy,” Prichard said. “Many ponderosa pine forests burned at high intensity and were killed.” Some landowners are so disturbed by the sight of charred trees that their instinct is to cut them all down, but Williamson warned of problems with that approach.
Ecological Restoration Restoring integrity, function and sustainability
Camden Shaw 509.341.4133 cell PLANTNE953BF
A “seed mob” organized by the Methow Conservancy gives the landscape a helping hand in healing by spreading native seeds in areas of Texas Creek that were disturbed during efforts to fight the wildfires. photo bY ann mccrearY “Some folks are doing clear cut logging … actions that are making things worse,” she said. “The equipment disturbs soils and breaks up whatever crust might exist there, making the potential for erosion greater for downhill property.” Some trees that appear badly damaged will recover, and others may survive this season but die in a year or two. “Even if trees are going to die within a year, they put their last resources into reproducing,” said Williamson. “In some cases foresters suggest leaving trees because that’s how there is going to be natural regeneration.” In more than two decades of studying wildfires, Pacific Biodiversity Institute’s Morrison has had the
opportunity to take a longer view of how nature responds to fire. An example, he said, is the Tyee Fire in 1994, which burned 135,000 acres — about half the size of the Carlton Complex Fire. “We’ve had the opportunity to come back and look at how things changed after the fire,” Morrison said. “It was quite similar to the Carlton Complex, although a larger portion was forested. The natural re-vegetation after the fire was phenomenal.” “We try to help landowners get a picture of what it’s going to look like in the future, a sense that it’s going to be OK,” said Williamson. “It’s not going to be a moonscape forever. It’s not going to be black forever.” ❖
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A publication of the Methow Valley News
After the fire: taking stock By John F. Marshall
HE fire is over, and it is time to take stock. The Carlton Complex Fire is now the largest in state history, but by no means the deadliest. Thirty-eight people died in the Yacolt Burn of 1903. That the only deaths related to the fire were a heart attack victim and another man who died from injuries related to fighting the fire is amazing, considering that the fire burned as rapidly as 4 acres per second. Credit goes to law enforcement, incident commanders, firefighters and residents. Although there is scientific evidence for very large fires in the past, Carlton Complex was probably worse than any fire in the past 10,000 years. Historically, the Methow Valley burned often, but generally not in a violent destructive way. “Lightning Bill” Austin of Goat Peak Lookout fame told me that his grandfather arrived in the Bridgeport area in the 1890s, and learned from the Indians that they annually lit fires in the fall on their way down the Methow to their winter camps along the Columbia River. There is plenty of evidence across North America of Indians deliberately lighting fires. Fires were lit because it improved food resources, and kept the land open for travel. Also, by lighting fires in spring and fall when fire behavior was likely to be moderate, summer was made safer. Frequent fire translates to less intense fire, because fuels are burned off. The first interruption of the ancient rhythms of fire was massive livestock grazing in the 19th century. Fires no longer carried across valley bottoms because the grass was gone. Gifford Pinchot , first chief of the U.S. Forest Service, set fire suppression as the most important goal of the agency. The Big Burn of 1910 in northern Idaho and western Montana galvanized the resolve of nearly everyone to put out all fires. During the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps gave the Forest www.MethowValleyNews.com
Service the manpower to be effective. Lookouts were placed on peaks, telephone lines strung, and trails built. For about 50 years the Forest Service was highly effective at fire suppression, until the agency began to lose the battle. The landscape had become more flammable.
Not keeping up
In our dry forests east of the Cascades, fire is the primary means by which dead wood goes away. In the absence of fires, twigs and dead branches accumulate. The other phenomenon is that the spaces between large fire resistant trees fill in with small trees which in the past would be weeded out by fire. Much of the Carlton Complex Fire area was not forested, but rather a community dominated by big sagebrush and bitterbrush. These plants have much in the way of volatile oils. That a landscape deprived of fire becomes more vulnerable to fire is not breaking news, but public policy has not kept up with science. Four years ago, I sat in the Grange hall in Okanogan and listened to Dr. James Agee, professor emeritus at the University of Washington, give a talk on fire ecology and forest management. Agee offered solutions to the fire problem, employing thinning and prescribed burning. I asked him, “Why are we not doing this at the needed scale?” Agee’s reply was “smoke, money and environmental appeals”. Nobody likes smoke. It’s irritating, obscures views of the peaks, and is unhealthy to breathe. The reality is that in an area like the Methow, smoke is going to be a fact of life from time to time. I have heard people say that we have a right to clean air. That is like saying we have a right to safe highways, when in fact at times our roads are going to be covered with snow and ice, and be dangerous. We can either burn deliberately through prescribed fires or allow wildfire to take over. Realistically, it would be wise to remove some trees before we light a prescribed fire. If our forests have
become abnormally thick, why not go in with chainsaws and reduce the number of trees? Large ponderosa pines and Douglas firs are something I hold dear. Most of them were taken out through logging long ago. What few we have left are going to be killed by fire and bark beetles if we do not do something. Unfortunately the economics of logging small trees is difficult, especially when the nearest mill to handle such logs is 150 miles away in Colville. Slashing small trees and reducing fuels through prescribed fires and pile burning costs money. Congress has rightfully identified that we have a deficit problem, hence little money is allocated for these activities, even though it would employ many people. Money is spent anyhow – massively on fire suppression, because a wildfire burning represents an emergency. Compare the $69 million spent on the Carlton Complex Fire with the budget of $3.5 million for fuel reductions on the entire Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest in 2014.
Weather conditions during the Carlton Complex Fire were extreme. The combination of high temperatures, low relative humidity, and constant wind was most unusual. Add weather to too much accumulated fuels, and you have a recipe for a very bad fire. Essentially, by putting out all fires occurring under moderate weather conditions we have assigned fire to happen under severe conditions with the most drastic results. Driving around in the Carlton Complex Fire area, I saw things that made me scratch my head, until I talked to some of the fire professionals involved. Large fires put up a plume of hot gases. High winds caused the plume to bend over, roasting trees well ahead of the fire front. Isolated trees in rocky areas and even some stands that were nicely thinned were taken out. That this happened is bizarre. Homes that should have been safe, burned. Wild lands are an attractive place
to live. We all like our trees. We tend to forget that every wild area has burned many, many times in the past and will again. There is a cost to living in the woods. Every home will eventually need defending. A large portion of the Forest Service expenditures every year go toward stopping the advance of fires toward private property. If homes were built with fire in mind, and fuels already reduced, this would not be such a big problem. For homeowners, cutting down trees may be painful, but it is a price to be paid to make homes safer. A scene that I photographed from a ridgeline 6 miles up Highway 153 from Pateros is grim. In the spring there will be a different look as the land greens up and flowers come out. There may be floods to come, but eventually the land will restore itself. Not all of the Carlton Complex area should be seen as a disaster. Looking at a ridgeline in the Gold Creek area, I see a nice pattern of the fire having burned at varying intensities. In places the larger ponderosa pines are scorched, but not dead. The continuous swath of young Douglas fir trees on the hillside has some holes burned in it, but that is actually a good thing. The burned patches will offer a variety of wildlife habitats and change fire behavior in the future. It will be interesting to watch the changes to the landscape in the years to come. Fires are as much a beginning of a narrative as an ending. I can’t wait to turn the page. ❖ John Marshall has a master’s degree in wildlife resources from the University of Idaho. He lived in the Leavenworth area during the 1994 fires and set up photo points immediately after the fires. He is still keeping track of over 60 sites. He also has been re-taking panoramic photographs from the 1930s from lookout sites for the U.S. Forest Service. Marshall recently completed a two-year appointment to the Humanities Washington Speaker’s Bureau, during which he delivered presentations on “Fire and Forests East of The Cascades Divide.” TRIAL BY FIRE 39
Firewise techniques — minimizing vegetation near the house and keeping it trimmed and irrigated — increase the chances that a house will survive a fire. photo bY marcY stamper
Firewise and firestorms In the intensity of the fire, some areas proved resilient By Marcy Stamper
IRTUALLY every experienced firefighter and scholar of wildfires who has studied the Carlton Complex Fire described it as unprecedented in its speed and 40 TRIAL BY FIRE
intensity. It was a fire that, in many ways, defied typical patterns and predictions about what burns and how it burns. “In 17 years, I’ve never seen a fire like this,” said Ben Curtis, a fire behavior analyst with the Incident Management Team that worked on the fire in July. “It was a firestorm — it wasn’t a regular fire, like we see on TV in California,” said Carlene Anders, a former smokejumper and firefighter with 30 years of experience. “I’ve been on a lot of huge fires. There was no specific head to this fire and it was spotting everywhere, creating its
own weather.” But as researchers analyze the burn pattern of the Carlton Complex Fire, they are gathering more information about how to decrease the intensity of fire and about how to create defensible space around houses. Most of the large fires in this area in the past several decades have burned in timber, but the Carlton Complex Fire burned primarily through shrub-steppe habitat, grasslands and other nonforested areas, according to the Pacific Biodiversity Institute. Only one-quarter of the 269,000 acres that burned were
forested, their researchers found. The Okanogan Conservation District and the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) have been visiting areas within the burn scar where they had completed fuels-reduction projects before the fire. They found that most places where they had thinned and pruned trees — removing the limbs up to 8 to 10 feet above the ground — burned less intensely, according to Kirsten Cook, education and outreach coordinator for the Conservation District. In these treated areas, trees were scorched at the bottom but their crowns didn’t burn, said Cook. By A publication of the Methow Valley News
contrast, in places where the fire reached the tree canopy, all the trees burned. The goal is to keep the fire low and on the ground, she said.
The Conservation District helps property owners apply protective Firewise techniques, through education and site visits. The Firewise program encourages neighbors to organize and plan together and helps them obtain grants for thinning and other fuels-reduction projects. At one such project on French Creek — one of the areas where the fire burned most intensely — the Conservation District did a Firewise assessment for the property owners before they built their house a few years ago. The assessment recommended using construction equipment to clear bitterbrush, which is extremely flammable. The homeowners surmise that removing the large bitterbrush — sometimes called “gasoline on a stick” — had saved their house, said Cook. The Chiliwist, in the hills above Malott, which experienced extensive devastation and lost 53 homes in the fire, was the first recognized Firewise community in Okanogan County. In the Chiliwist, participation in
the program had grown from 12 to 40 people over the past several years, said Cook. “They had just finished their plan — it just kills me. There was lots of money for fuels reduction when the fire came through,” she said. Properties in the Chiliwist that had already applied Firewise principles “did well in most cases,” said Cook. “It’s not a guarantee, but it reduces your risk.” After surveying the damage in the Chiliwist, the Conservation District found that people whose properties were at the head of the fire, despite having done a lot of work to make their homes defensible, still lost their houses, said Cook. But on the fire’s flanks — which burn less intensely — on land where underbrush had been thinned, the fire did an underburn and the large trees survived, said Cook. Phil Dart, fire chief in the northern Okanogan County town of Molson, said 90 percent of the homes that were saved this summer had applied Firewise principles. “Follow the guidelines — it gives you a chance. What you do before the fire starts is what’s going to save your home,” he said. Joanna Bastian, whose Gold Creek
What you do before the fire starts is what’s going to save your home. — Phil Dart, Molson Fire Chief home was threatened by the fire, saw the impact of Firewise techniques firsthand. Wherever they had removed dead trees and limbed to about 6 feet off the ground, the fire stayed in the grass and didn’t go up into the trees, she said. Areas where they mowed also survived, she said. In one instance, where a Firewise property is adjacent to DNR land that hadn’t been treated, “you can almost see the property line,” said Cook. “It is an amazing example of what happens when you treat the forest — and when you don’t treat the forest,” she said. The untreated forest was demolished in a devastating crown fire, she said.
Forests versus shrub steppe
Years of fire suppression have affected the health of local forests and shrub steppe, increasing the potential for hotter, more severe fires in both habitats. Like forests in the North Cascades, many of which have grown dense with small, skinny trees, the shrubsteppe environment in this area has also become loaded with overgrown fuels, said Cook. Historically, shrub-steppe habitat had small fires every three to 15 years, but many of these areas now have extremely large bitterbrush and sagebrush plants, which will burn hot and for a long time, said Cook. Flame lengths are typically three times the height of the fuel, she said.
Bizarre fire behavior?
In many areas, a green belt helped protect a structure — and gave firefighters a safe place to fight the fire. photo bY marcY stamper www.MethowValleyNews.com
When a fire produces its own internal weather, it can actually skip over things in its path as it uses up all the oxygen, resulting in some seemingly surprising unburned patches. Anders, who fought the Carlton Complex Fire as a volunteer firefighter for Pateros and Okanogan
County Fire District 15, recalled finding an intact gas tank — the one thing in the middle of a carport that hadn’t burned. “Some sections suffocate and don’t burn. Fire is alive — it has to eat and breathe,” said Anders. Even natural barriers can prove no match for the most severe fires, particularly in windy conditions, said Bill Moody, who spent 57 years as a smokejumper. In these conditions, the fire can join with spot fires some distance from the main fire and leapfrog, igniting still more areas.
Protection for property — and firefighters A key aspect of creating defensible space around a house is that, by reducing the intensity of a fire, it becomes safer for firefighters to remain there to protect the house. “They more you do, the more likely a fire crew will say, ‘we can be safe here,’” said Cook. Firefighters’ first concern is safety, so they will not go into an area with heavy fuel loads or if they cannot get in and out quickly, said Okanogan County Fire District 6 Chief Don Waller. They have to ask, “If we are trapped, can we stay and not be affected by the fire?” he said. “We’re not immune to getting burned up.” Preparing the perimeter of a house helps firefighters, who will remove vegetation if it can be done quickly and safely. But when a fire is raging, the team may determine that cutting brush to save one house would take too long and move up the road to another house that is more defensible, said Brian Scott, a public information officer for the Carlton Complex Fire. “It pains firefighters to have to pass up a house because they think they can’t save it,” said fire chief Dart. TRIAL BY FIRE 41
Still, “when firefighters are moving brush away from buildings, I hate to see that,” said Cook. “They should be making fire lines instead of moving stuff.”
Creating a defensible space
vegetation should be 10 feet from the tank.
More interest in Firewise techniques
s FIREWISE / TIPS FOR HOMEOWNERS
Since the fire, Cook has seen an There are three ways that houses increased interest in Firewise techignite: from radiant heat — if it’s niques. A workshop in Mazama in close and hot enough, wood walls will August drew 50 attendees, about five ignite; from flames; and from ember times as many as usual, she said. She WILDFIRE DOESN’T HAVE TO BURN everything in its path. In fact, cleaning showers, said Cook. has also been doing Firewise assessyour property of debris and maintaining your landscaping are important Keeping yourself and your propments several times a week in the first steps to helping minimize damage and loss. erty safe from fire means creating a Methow Valley since the fire. well-protected zone, free of flam“A lot of it is pretty simple. You The work you do today can make a difference. Follow these simple action mable items and with well-trimmed, harden the house so embers don’t WILDFIRE DOESN’T HAVE TO BURN everything in its path. In fact, cleaning your property of debris and steps now and throughout the year to prepare and help reduce the risk of well-watered vegetation, in a 30-foot a place to smolder. You reducefirst steps maintaining your have landscaping are important to helping minimize damage and loss. your home and property becoming fuel for a wildfire: perimeter around the house, accordthe vegetation — you don’t have to ing to the Firewise recommendations. scalp it,” said Cook. “You can use a Clear leaves and other debris gutters, eaves, porchesthe and year decks. The work can make a difference. simple action stepsfrom now and throughout Woodpiles, unscreened vents you in do today nonflammable material like rock andFollowthese This prevents embers from your home. walls and vegetation decksand all help paving to reduce a tounder prepare reduce the the riskintensity of yourofhome and property becoming fueligniting for a wildfire: become places where falling embers fire once it gets close to the home.” Remove dead vegetation from under your deck and within 10 feet of and burning debris can get a footThere are more in-depth principles hold, said Cook. that can be incorporated for people Clear leaves and other debris from gutters, eaves, the house. Keep your lawn hydrated and maintained. If it is building a home from scratch, she Firewise principles also suggest brown, cutstored it down to reduce intensity. Dry anything underneath decksfire or porches. creating a 100-foot zoneporches around and decks. said. This prevents embers from Remove igniting grass and shrubs are fuel for wildfire. the house with gaps between treesyour home. Education and cooperation among Screen or box-in areas below patios and decks with wire mesh to neighbors is vital, particularly in areas so flames can’t move from one to the other and approach the house. with smaller lots. “Firewise techprevent debris and combustible materials from accumulating. Maintenance — such as R cleaning are morefrom effective if it’syour not andeck emovedead deadniques vegetation under Don’t let debris and lawn cuttings linger. Dispose landscaping, pruning dead branches island,” said Cook. Creating a Firewise Remove materials (firewood stacks,fuel propane and within 10 feet of the house. of flammable these items quickly to reduce for tanks, fire. dry and making sure leaves and pine community also increases the chances vegetation) within 30 feet of your home’s foundation and outbuildings, of obtaining competitive grants. needles, which are easily ignited by including garages and sheds. If it can catch fire, don’t let it touch your embers, don’t collect on the roof or in “Firewise techniques and practices R emove anything stored underneath decks or shingles or roof tiles. Replace or repair house,Inspect deck or porch. gutters — is also key. are not a magic blanket — they don’t those that are loose or missing to prevent ember Propane tanks shouldporches. be at least 30 necessarily protect your house, but Wildfire can spread to tree tops. If you have trees on your property, penetration. feet from the house and flammable they reduce your risk,” said Cook. ❖
Firewise tips checklist for homeowners Firewise tips checklist for homeowners
Screen or box-in areas below patios and decks o
prune so the lowest branches are 6 to 10 feet from the ground.
your lawn hydratedattic and maintained. If itmetal is brown, cut itmesh down to with wire mesh to prevent debris and combus- Keep Cover exterior vents with wire o reduce fire intensity. Dry grass and shrubs are fuel for wildfire. no larger than 1/8 inch to prevent sparks from tible materials from accumulating. entering the home. Don’t let debris and lawn cuttings linger. Dispose of these items
Remove flammable materials (firewood stacks, o
quickly to reduce fuel for fire.
Enclose and soffit vents propane tanks, dry vegetation) within 30 feet of Inspect shingles under-eave or roof tiles. Replace or repair thoseor thatscreen are loose or o with metalember meshpenetration. to prevent ember entry. your home’s foundation and outbuildings, includ- missing to prevent ing garages and sheds. If it can catch fire, don’t Cover exterior attic vents with metal wire mesh no larger than 1/8 let it touch your house, deck or porch. inch to prevent sparks from entering the home. Learn more about how to keep your family safe and reduceunder-eave your home’s riskvents for wildfire damage and soffit or screen with metal at mesh to Wildfire can spread to tree tops. If you have trees Enclose o www.firewise.org. prevent ember entry. on your property, prune so the lowest branches are 6 to 10 feet from the ground. Learn more about how to keep your family safe and reduce your home’s risk for wildfire damage at www.firewise.org.
Although the intensity of the fire stunned even veteran firefighters, houses with a defensible space around them had a better chance of survival. photo bY marcY stamper 42 TRIAL BY FIRE
A publication of the Methow Valley News
A flag is a poignant marker in an area on the Loup that was devastated by the wildfire – and then again by mudslides. photo bY marcY stamper
The risk factors: assess and prepare
HE Okanogan Conservation District (OCD) has been assisting nearly 200 landowners impacted by the Carlton Complex and Rising Eagle Road fires. Methow Valley residents can expect more runoff and water in places it’s never been before. Landowners should identify potential locations of erosion, flooding, or debris flows. Remember to look uphill and far beyond your own boundaries. Because the fire removed vegetation, water will run off the soil surface rather than sinking in, leading to greater amounts of water moving downslope. Trees that have been weakened or killed by fire are a long-term risk. Landowners should identify and remove hazard trees. Not all trees that burned will die, but some that survive are weakened and may come down in high wind. Reseeding and/or replanting may not be necessary except in certain www.MethowValleyNews.com
conditions. Landowners should investigate the risk of weed invasion. Most native vegetation that was in good condition before the fire will recover quite well on its own. Disturbed soil is an open playground for weed invasion and is more likely to move in a flood. Seeding native or appropriate introduced grasses can help exclude weeds and tie the soil together. Reseeding is also a good option if there were weeds on or near the property before the fire. What you can do to prepare: • Use topographical maps or Google Earth to get a feel for how water could flow onto your property from land nearby, and what water might do as it flows across your property and onto other lands. • Consider obtaining flood insurance if your home or other important structures are in a low area or point where water flows converge. The National Flood Insurance Program led
by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) makes flood insurance available through insurance agencies. Details can be found at www.floodsmart.gov. • Be ready to evacuate at any time. Do not wait for official evacuation notices — it will be better to evacuate when you don’t need to than to stay when you should go. Keep vehicles fueled and ready to move if necessary. Consider moving valuables offsite. • Have a 72-hour emergency kit in an accessible location. • Watch the weather and stay aware of changing conditions. Eleven rapid-reporting rain gauges were installed within the burn area to track precipitation in 5-minute intervals. These rain gauges report to the National Weather Service, which issues flood warnings to the public. Intense rainstorms are the most dangerous. Consider purchasing a NOAA weather radio if you are in an area
CON TAC T NUMB ER S
Okanogan Conservation District: (509) 422-0855, ext. 105 Okanogan County Noxious Weed Control Board: (509) 422-7166 Washington Department of Natural Resources Small Forest Landowners Program: (509) 684-7474 Methow Conservancy: (509) 996-2870 with radio reception. • Arrange for a site visit from Okanogan Conservation District, the state Department of Natural Resources Small Forest Landowners Program, Okanogan County Noxious Weed Control Board, or the Methow Conservancy to help you assess your risks and plan for recovery of your property’s natural resources. Visit www.okanogancd.org/Carlton for post-fire resources and information on flooding, seeding, and more. ❖ TRIAL BY FIRE 43
Can you hear me now?
Plans to mend breaks in communications By Marcy Stamper
Although Okanogan County’s 911 system was not damaged by the summer’s wildfire, that is small comfort, since the result was the same — during the most urgent days of the fire, emergency calls often did not get through. What did burn were the buried and aerial wires that carry these calls. These phone wires and fiber-optic cables are part of the network that transmits calls, in particular longdistance and 911. While local calls travel via copper wires, long-distance calls follow an intricate route that actually goes through Florida or Colorado before the phone rings, just fractions of a second later. 911 calls are routed by this same system and use the fiber-optic network, according to Mike Worden, chief of special operations/communications for Okanogan County. After the 911 system verifies that there are no technical failures that would interfere with transmission, the call is sent to the appropriate 911 dispatch center in less than a second, he said. After much of the system burned, there were not enough cables to handle the volume of calls. Frantic callers would instead get a fast busy signal indicating all circuits were busy, or find that their calls had simply been dropped. “The fire was really frustrating — I couldn’t call dispatch to save my life,” said Twisp Police Clerk Vicki Hallowell. “I just had to wait to have a live body in here to dispatch something.” “There is redundancy with the 911 systems; however, the fire damaged so much of that infrastructure that 44 TRIAL BY FIRE
to get the system rerouted took longer than usual,” said Kerry Zimmer, marketing and public relations manager for CenturyLink, the local phone company. “When the phone lines were burned, the few that remained became overloaded and that is when you would hear the fast busy.” The difficult experience with communications at such a crucial time prompted county communications managers to put plans for technological upgrades on a fast track. They want to guarantee that people will be able to phone 911 and their friends and family if there is another emergency.
Okanogan County is asking the state to fund new microwave technology and equipment, which will provide reliable service because it won’t depend on the phone lines, said Worden. It would also have built-in redundancy in case of a rupture in the main system. The county is also hoping to modernize other parts of its emergency communications and dispatch systems. It’s basically telling the state Legislature, “here’s what we’re working on, here’s what we need now, and here’s what we’ll talk to you about later,” said Worden. The county’s wish list begins with an expansion of the microwave network. The county currently has some microwave communications, but there are no alternate paths built into that system, said Worden. With the proposed enhancements, the system would switch to the microwave network if phone lines were damaged, said Worden. For 911 calls, the hardware would recognize
Desperate to let her family know they were OK, Jan Gregg, who lives outside Winthrop, solicited help from passing motorists to make a call for her. photo courtesY Jan
that the calls couldn’t go through and automatically reroute them by microwave to the dispatch center, he said. The county currently has three microwave sites, on McClure, Flagg and Little Buck mountains, but they all rely on a central hub. “We want to eliminate a single point that could take down the whole system,” said Worden. “I think of it as a foundation for improvements to the radio system in the future, to carry the traffic,” said Worden. Microwave signals could also function as backup phone lines for city halls and other government entities, said Worden.
More 911 reinforcements
The county is also seeking a way to bolster its 911 system by developing an automatic connection between the radio network and the dispatch centers in Okanogan and Ferry counties. That way, if either county had to evacuate its dispatch center, the system would transfer operations to the other center and send all calls there directly, said Worden. At present, Okanogan County uses a primitive version of this system. If there is a break in Okanogan County’s 911 system, the calls go to Ferry County, but the Ferry County
dispatchers then have to call Okanogan dispatchers — on the phone — to let them know about an emergency in Okanogan County, said Worden. That would have been a problem this summer, when so few phone lines were intact.
Dispatch center upgrade
“The next pressing issue is the dispatch center,” said Worden. Dispatchers are currently using antiquated radio controls, due for replacement within the next year at a cost of $150,000 to $200,000, he said. Worden wants to spend that money on improved technology, rather than just maintain the current system. The county also wants to replace the dispatch center itself, which is currently housed in a retrofitted space in the jail building. A serious limitation of the existing center is that it can accommodate only four dispatchers at a time. During the Carlton Complex Fire, with between 100 and 500 calls at once, the volume of emergency calls could have kept 10 dispatchers busy, said Worden. “The system was severely constricted. It was working, but could only take so much,” he said. With more space and more telephones, even the existing phone network A publication of the Methow Valley News
could accommodate that call volume, said Worden. The county’s dispatch center normally handles about 7,000 calls per month (about one-quarter are 911 calls), but in July dispatch operators answered twice that many. At the height of the fire, they dealt with almost 1,200 calls a day, four times the normal load, said Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers.
The third item on the county’s wish list is new radios for the county sheriff’s department, which currently has 14 radios that are no longer manufactured. The radios will become obsolete when the company discontinues technical support for them in two years. These radios are costly — about $20,000 apiece — even though they offer limited coverage. “We have to spend money to maintain what we have. We may as well spend money to gain functionality,” said Worden. The Okanogan County Public Utility District, local fire districts and Aero Methow Rescue Service all have some of the same radios in their fleet, which Worden hopes can also be replaced. Another bottleneck is the limitation on the number of available frequencies for emergency communications, said Worden. In most parts of the county, law enforcement, fire and emergency medical services share the same frequency, meaning that at busy times, dispatch and responders sometimes have to wait for a free frequency. The Methow Valley actually has better coverage than most parts of the county, with three separate frequencies handled by the tower on McClure Mountain, said Worden. “Brewster has only one frequency for all three and it gets horribly crowded,” he said. Getting a new frequency is more difficult than it used to be, requiring an application to the Federal Communications Commission for a frequency that won’t conflict with others in this area or in Canada, which can take two years, said Worden. The county is also working on a new mass-notification system, where people could sign up to be notified by phone, email or text message in a disaster, according to Okanogan www.MethowValleyNews.com
County Emergency Manager Scott Miller. The system would supplement door-to-door notifications during evacuations and other emergencies. Estimated costs for the county’s requests are $2 million for the microwave system, between $150,000 and $200,000 for the radio controls used by dispatchers, between $4 million and $9 million for a new dispatch center, and $440,000 for new radios for the sheriff’s deputies and fire departments.
Towns and utilities look at upgrades
Aero Methow in Twisp is upgrading its office communications, adding three lines of redundancy, using phone, Internet and satellite, which should be installed by the end of the year, said Director of Services Cindy Button. With this system in place, Button said Aero Methow could become a potential hub for communications if all other options failed. Local utilities are also planning for the future. “The biggest lesson learned during this situation was that we [the Okanogan County Electric Cooperative] need to install a small satellite Internet service here in case the fiber optics go out again,” said co-op General Manager David Gottula. “We need to be able to function totally off-grid during an emergency.”
The Town of Twisp is seeking financial assistance from the state for improving its utilities and communications systems. Mayor Soo Ing-Moody has asked the Legislature for priority status for funding for these projects.
Mixing old and new technology
While state-of-the-art equipment will certainly improve communications, there are advantages to older technology, some of which will still be used as backup. In the old days, phone systems were tied together in actual bundles. “You could put your hand around them. You knew where the circuits were and could plan around them,” said Hank Cramer, who was Washington’s 911 systems manager in the 1990s and is now the executive director of Methow Valley Long Term Recovery, which is handling local fire recovery and preparedness. Today, fiber lines can carry so much information that most calls are carried out of the valley by just a few lines. “In the old days, one guy with a backhoe would take down 25 to 100 conversations. Now, one guy could take out the whole valley. Fiberoptics have actually made us more vulnerable,” said Cramer. While buried lines seem more protected, this summer’s wildfire also
Hundreds of miles of electrical lines and fiber-optic cables – and the poles that support them – were incinerated in the blaze. photo bY marcY stamper
scorched CenturyLink’s underground cable, said Zimmer. Technicians were able to splice together some intact wires to restore service, but reduced capacity meant that many calls failed. “The redundancies for the system are in place, but you can’t foresee everything. It could be something as crazy as a gopher chew,” said Zimmer. The Twisp Police Department now has one additional route around these vulnerable systems. The chief, two officers and the clerk just obtained their ham radio licenses in December, said Hallowell. “The ham radios will be one more reliable source of communication for when everything tumbles down like it did during the fires,” she said. Because there are many amateur radio operators already operating from home stations, the police department will also be able to get their assistance sending messages up and down the valley in an emergency, said Twisp Police Chief Paul Budrow.
Many area residents have already made upgrades to their personal communications systems, switching in large numbers to Verizon for cell phone service during and after the fire. Both of the major local cell carriers — Verizon and AT&T — lost service during the power outage, but Verizon service was restored within a few hours once the company refueled the generator that powered its cell tower. AT&T service was spotty at best during and even after the blackout. The county has a multi-milliondollar communications plan, but ordinary citizens can prepare for emergencies much more inexpensively. For people who still have landlines, having an old-fashioned phone that doesn’t require electricity is an obvious help in a power outage — but less so if the phone lines burn. Likewise, having a battery-operated or hand-cranked radio can be a way to get news and feel less cut-off. Having a functional cell phone is an advantage, and a smartphone may even allow access to Internet and email — if those networks are intact. Keep in mind that in a power outage you’ll need an alternate way to charge those devices. And don’t forget about knocking on your neighbor’s door. ❖ TRIAL BY FIRE 45
The bottom line bottoms out The fires’ economic impacts were profound, if difficult to measure By Don Nelson
EFORE July 17, the fires were worrisome. From July 17 on, through more fires, storms and floods, they nearly left the Methow Valley economy in smoking ruins. Three things — two tangible, the other amporphous — threatened the Methow with an economic meltdown: • The entire valley lost electrical power for eight days, so unless you had a generator, you were literally out of business at the height of the summer season. Not only power, but also Internet connections and phone service (land line and cellular) were unavailable or interrupted. Lack of communications plagued businesses and individuals alike. • The fires, storms and floods closed major roads into the valley either intermittently or for long periods. • The Methow’s marketing power as a tourist destination went up in ashes as news media coverage depicted the devastation with typical hyperbole. Many potential visitors, uncertain about what they would find, defaulted to staying away or canceling existing plans. That’s the “macro” overview of impacts on the Methow’s economy caused by the Carlton Complex Fire and its consequences — real, profound but difficult to measure in the aggregate. The visceral damage occurred at the “micro” level, business by business, each dealing with distinct challenges. At the same time, some businesses that managed to stay open — grocery stores, gas stations, lodging 46 TRIAL BY FIRE
Motorists lined up for gas at Hank’s Mini Market in Twisp, which operated on a cash- or check-only basis with a generator providing electricity during the power outage. photo bY marcY stamper establishments, other basic services — may have benefited by being the only options. Post-fire and flood, local contractors have all the work they can handle doing repairs, remodels and rebuilds.
Hard to define
All of which makes “economic impact” a slippery term. It breaks down in many ways — lost revenue, lost cash reserves (spent on generators and other equipment, or on refunds), lost inventory (especially refrigerated food), lost opportunity, lost time, lost personnel, lost wages, lost property, lost profit margins and, perhaps most crippling, lost incentive. Putting a cumulative value on all of that is, at best, what some economist wags call a WAG — wild-ass guess. And if you think “impact” is hard to quantify, try devising a meaningful definition for “recovery.”
Methow Valley Long Term Recovery (MVLTR), a local nonprofit formed to plan for and execute an overall recovery strategy, is attempting to do just that. An economic development subcommittee of MVLTR is developing a needs assessment that will be used to apply for grants to help support the recovery efforts. The subcommittee is co-chaired by Julie Muyllaert, co-owner of Methow Cycle & Sport in Winthrop and outgoing president of the Winthrop Chamber of Commerce; and Amy Stork, executive director of TwispWorks and president of the Twisp Chamber of Commerce. In a draft statement of impacts and needs, the committee notes that the valley “is highly vulnerable to natural events because of the high percentage of tourism and recreation-based businesses ... more resources are required to bring visitors back to the valley
after major events.” The statement also points out that the housing shortage resulting from loss of residences in the valley creates problems for potential employees, which makes hiring and keeping workers more difficult. Housing is a major focus of the countywide recovery group, and about one third of the houses that need to be rebuilt are in the Methow Valley. And, the statement says, “the Methow Valley infrastructure — at every level — is vulnerable to future events due to a lack of redundancy, the age and condition of the infrastructure, and access to maintenance/development funds.” The ultimate aim of economic development planning, Muyllaert and Stork say, is to be better prepared next time. “Our goal is that by the end of 2015, we’ll have completed a preparedness A publication of the Methow Valley News
plan,” Muyllaert said in December. “Even now, we’re better prepared than we were four months ago.” Preparedness could range from having backup generators to crafting a marketing message that can be deployed when disaster threatens local businesses. Long term, Muyllaert said, the goal is to create a “more year-round economy so we are less vulnerable, especially to events that occur in our high [tourism] seasons.” Economic development could have a slightly different meaning for the Methow, she said. “Our measurements of success should be retention ... rather than job generation,” Muyllaert said. “We are looking at the Methow Valley’s entire economy. I’m excited about that. We [valley residents] travel the whole valley to meet our needs, and our visitors do the same … Any one [business] success is the community’s success.”
“It’s still unfolding, and multifaceted,” Muyllaert said of the overall impact the summer’s natural disasters had on the valley’s economy. “It’s generally a challenge to quantify” overall economic impacts, said Stork. “You can get really hung up on trying to count things ... Specific businesses had specific impacts. Some effects will take more time to shake out.” Some businesses that may have squeaked through summer may not have enough staying power to make it through the winter, Stork said — particularly if it’s another snow-impaired season like 2013-14. Cash reserves might be drained to the point of jeopardizing a business. “If you spent all your money on a generator, how do you adjust, how do you strategically plan?” she said. Disasters such as the valley endured last summer “create a standing wave of impact ... we’re trying to smooth out that wave” with the MVLTR economic development plan, Stork said. “We don’t want to be in a crisis situation,” she said. “We want to be in a proactive stance.” “It was a painful event,” Stork said. “But it’s also an opportunity to take a really close look at who we are economically as a community and decide where we want to be.” www.MethowValleyNews.com
The goal is a more stable and resilient economy that doesn’t get sucker-punched by the next natural disaster, she said. “Everything is so interconnected,” Stork said of the valley economy. “Impacts on one business will ripple through the community.”
Tourism wasn’t the only affected sector. Farmers, ranchers and orchardists lost livestock, fences, forage, trees. Some locally oriented service and retail businesses that were unable to stay open lost out on the income they would have generated from valley residents. Not everything went dark during the power outage. Hank’s Harvest Foods in Twisp, with its generators going full time, became something of a surrealistic refuge with lights, air conditioning, fresh food and ice — tons of ice. Also open for the duration of the outage were La Fonda Lopez, Hank’s Mini Market and the Chevron station in Twisp, Pardners Mini Market, Evergreen IGA, The Chewuch Inn, Cascades Outdoor Store and Sheri’s Sweet Shoppe in Winthrop. Blue Star Coffee Roasters in Twisp kept going during the outage with a generator, became a central gathering spot and information resource center. The Carlton General Store stayed open 24 hours a day for a while, acting as the hub of the lower valley community. The Tenderfoot in Winthrop and the Mazama Store were able to open thanks to generators. A few others found ways to open or partially open before the power came back on. On Glover Street in Twisp, employees at Cinnamon Twisp Bakery set up tables in front of the store and offered coffee, tea and pastries — for whatever donation you cared to offer. It became a place to exchange information, ask questions, make connections. Washworks in Twisp offered laundry service and showers. North Cascades Bank opened its drive-up window for basic transactions. Some businesses staggered or even packed it in. The Lily of the Valley gift and consignment store in Twisp closed for good. The owners left a sign on the front door saying that fire was the final blow.
For some businesses, the impact was swift and severe. Kathleen Jardin, co-owner of Central Reservations in Winthrop, said that when news about the fires began to spread, her company was inundated with phone calls — many of them asking for information about what was going on. Ultimately, Jardin said, Central Reservations refunded about $140,000 in deposits and cancelled another $200,000 in reservations — money that would have come to local lodging establishments. Brian Charlton, general manager at Sun Mountain Lodge, said that “the effect on us was quite massive” — ultimately totaling more than $1 million. It didn’t happen all at once. Sun Mountain also suffered after the fires of mid-July because of road closures associated with the fires. When the first firestorms swept through in July, Sun Mountain had a full house, Charlton said. Not only did the guests have to be evacuated, but they had to be refunded as well, he said. Then the cancelled reservations began mounting. The lodge initiated some of those, telling visitors that — with fires still burning and the power situation uncertain — they couldn’t guarantee what would be happening through the month of July. Some groups that had booked the lodge were transferred to Chelan, Charlton said. In addition to lost room and meals revenue, the lodge lost $17,000 worth of food that went to waste in the power outage, and spent about $46,000 to buy generators and rent a refrigeration truck. Other issues popped up, such as how to deal with laundry, and whether generators could keep the water and sewage systems operating effectively. The losses are just that, Charlton said. “We lost ’em,” he said of the days the lodge was closed. “We can’t make it up. Lost money is lost money.” Effects of the summer’s events lingered into September, Charlton said. “There was still an aftershock.” The good news, he said, is that snowshoe and ski trails were in good shape in December.
There are a few indicators that help with assessing the fires’ impacts on tourism. Kristen Smith, marketing director for the Winthrop Chamber of Commerce, noted that through September Winthrop had already exceeded 2013’s record of hotel night stays. July, August and September were not down significantly from last year, she said. Of course, had not the fires disrupted the summer season, the nightly stays might be well ahead of 2013. “Methow Valley area hotels (not including Winthrop) are below 2013 but above 2012,” Smith said. “Combining Winthrop and Methow Valley area hotels, we will be below 2013 but above 2012 in hotel night stays. Methow Valley visitation was pretty close to 2012 — even slightly above.” As for sales tax collections, Winthrop is tracking almost exactly at last year’s revenue, Smith said.
Restoring the image
How do you calculate the value of an image? The Methow Valley is promoted as a sunny summer wonderland with extraordinary recreational opportunities. It took just a few days of flames and smokes to smudge that image. “Quantifying the image impact will be difficult,” Stork said. The Carlton Complex Fire was a national story. News media representatives of the print and broadcast variety descended on the valley and Okanogan County. The images and reports that went out were generally accurate, if somewhat dramatic. The effect was instantaneous: Many people who were planning to come here, or were already scheduled to, changed their minds or canceled reservations. Local tourism promoters such as the Winthrop and Twisp chambers of commerce and Okanogan County Tourism Council used emergency funds to commission radio and TV spots for play in the Seattle area, the most important tourism market. Additionally, state grant funds spent on marketing the Methow Valley and Okanogan County to potential Seattle-area visitors seem to have had a positive impact, Muyllaert said. ❖ TRIAL BY FIRE 47
FIRE B Y TH E NU M BE R S
Washington Stateâ€™s Largest Wildfires
Fire suppression costs:
2014 Carlton Complex 268,764 acres * 1902 Yacolt Burn, 239,000 acres **
$ 69.4 million
1994 Tyee Creek Fire in Chelan County 210,000 acres ***
Department of Natural Resources:
$ 25 million
United Statesâ€™ Largest Wildfires 1910 Great Fire of 1910 burned 3 million acres in Washington, Idaho and Montana****
Recovery & restoration costs: Estimate for federal lands:
$ 1.5 million
Estimate for state & private lands:
$ 2.8 million +
1871 Great Michigan Fire burned 2.5 million acres *****
Personnel & equipment
2008 Northern California Lightning Series burned 1.5 million acres****** 2014 Carlton Complex burned 268,764 acres* * DNR **Historylink.org ***The Seattle Times ****NPR.org *****The Forests of Michigan by Larry Leefers ******California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection
Structural Losses Structures Burned (numbers include Rising Eagle Road fire) 239 54 97 + 163 553
Single-family homes Cabins Shops & garages Outbuildings Structures lost
Value of structures lost
Carlton Complex: . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .$ 28 million Rising Eagle Road: . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .$ 1.5 million Total value of structures lost: . . . . . . . . . . . .$ 29.5 million 48 TRIAL BY FIRE
other pieces of equipment (such as dozers, water tenders, excavators)
air support module
1 DC-10 air tanker +_____ 246
units of equipment used on fire
Crews: . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 96
3,142 . . . . . . . . . . 110+
Most people working on the fires at a particular time: . . . . . DNR brand-new seasonal firefighters, statewide:
In addition to firefighters, there were biologists, engineers, hydrologists, mapping experts, range specialists, soil scientists and support staff from more than 17 entities (recruited by FEMA and Washington state). A publication of the Methow Valley News
Burned area by type of land cover
Homes lost per school district Methow Valley 36 homes lost Value: $4,974,000
131 homes lost Value: $14,674,600
17 homes lost Value: $2,819,900
Shrub steppe: 46%
53 homes lost Value: $5,392,400
Infrastructure Damage to roads, water systems and power lines, including cost of labor:
Was it covered? Uninsured losses: 44% Insured Losses: 56%
Dry forest: 25%
Sparsely vegetated: 15%
Grass-dominated: 7% Agriculture: 6% Riparian: 1%
How many? How much? Agriculture
Miles of fencing burned (both public and private): . . . . . . . . . 1,130 miles Livestock lost: . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 900 head of cattle Damage to orchard crops (apples, cherries, pears & grapes): . $ 1.6 million
Dug by hand: . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 27 miles Dug by bulldozer: . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 150 miles
PUD distribution lines burned:. . . . . . . . OCEC distribution lines burned: . . . . . . . PUD transmission lines burned: . . . . . . PUD fiber-optic cables burned: . . . . . . . OCEC fiber-optic cables burned: . . . . . . OCEC poles burned: . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Time to restore entire electrical system:
Recovery and relief funds: . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . more than $ 600,000
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341 miles . . 7 miles . 22 miles . 60 miles . . 2 miles . . . . 143 . 3 weeks
FEMA payments: . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $11,696,566.50
Abbreviations: BLM: Bureau of Land Management, DNR: Washington Department of Natural Resources, FEMA: Federal Emergency Management Agency, OCEC: Okanogan County Electric Cooperative, PUD: Okanogan County Public Utility District, WDFW: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Sources: Community Foundation of North Central Washington, DNR, FEMA, Gov. Jay Inslee (application for FEMA assistance), Okanogan County Assessor, OCEC, Okanogan County Long Term Recovery Group, PUD, Pacific Biodiversity Institute
TRIAL BY FIRE 49
Fire, wind and water … the elements seemed intent on disrupting life in the Methow Valley this summer. METHOW VALLEY NEWS FILE PHOTOS
The summer of 2014: a timeline July 14
A lightning storm and resulting strikes set off initial blazes around the region, notably around Texas Creek Road, Stokes Road, French Creek and Cougar Flat. In an unrelated event, a well-known fruit stand on Highway 153 is destroyed by fire. The Lone Mountain 1 Fire starts 50 TRIAL BY FIRE
above War Creek. It burns most of the summer, threatening the Twisp River drainage.
Evacuations and road closures begin in what is being called the Carlton Complex Fire, at the time consisting of several separate fires
in the Methow Valley, notably in the Texas Creek and Gold Creek areas east of Carlton. Smoke fills the valley as fires increase in intensity. From the Methow Valley News: “It’s kind of looking like one of those long drawn-out fire seasons. By mid-fire season, we’re all going to be competing for resources,” said Mick Mueller,
a public affairs officer for the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. A Washington state Type 3 management team is assigned to the fire.
A Type 2 management team is assigned to the fire and a firefighters’ camp begins to spring up at A publication of the Methow Valley News
the Methow Valley School District campus on Twin Lakes Road.
The Carlton Complex Fire explodes into an unstoppable fire front that consumes about 123,000 acres in one day, nearly half the final total acreage covered by the fire. As expected, the entire Methow Valley loses electrical power because of damage to Okanogan County Public Utility District transmission lines over Loup Loup Pass. The outage leaves 3,600 PUD customers and 3,500 Okanogan County Electric Cooperative customers without power. At the same time, Internet service and some telephone land lines are interrupted, and cell phone service provided by AT&T becomes unreliable or nonexistent. Most users of Verizon Wireless are still able to use their cell phones. A community meeting to discuss the fires is held in the unlighted Methow Valley Community Center, and draws a standing-room-only crowd. First responder and agency representatives including Peter Goldmark, state commissioner of public lands, address the crowd and provide incident maps showing the fires’ spread, but are able to provide only general information. Fires can be seen burning northeast, east and south of Twisp from downtown. Meanwhile, the fire has blasted over the hills east of the Methow Valley at a ferocious speed and descended as a firestorm on Pateros, where evacuation is under way. State highways 153 and 20 into the Methow Valley are closed, leaving Highway 20 to the west over Washington Pass as the only way in or out of the valley by vehicle. Flight restrictions are in effect because of the fire and smoke. In one day, the Carlton Complex Fire has gone from less than 45,000 acres to nearly 168,000 acres. What was once four separate fires is now one huge conflagration with a “donut hole” of unaffected land in the middle.
Twisp is put on Level 2 evacuation alert as fires sweep over Balky Hill, Beaver Creek and Finley Canyon. The opening of Twelfth Night at www.MethowValleyNews.com
The Merc Playhouse is postponed, and Methow Valley Chamber Musical Festival is canceled. The Winthrop Rhythm & Blues Festival goes on as planned.
Highway 153 is re-opened to traffic.
The Carlton Complex Fire reaches 250,136 acres (390 square miles), making it the largest wildfire in Washington state history and the top-priority fire in the country. From the Methow Valley News: “This is nothing short of a national disaster. I’ve never seen anything like this, of this magnitude, with this type of infrastructure damage we have.” — Rex Reed, deputy commander of the Washington Incident Management Team stationed at Liberty Bell High School.
The Okanogan County PUD power line over the Loup is repaired, and electricity restored to most of Methow Valley. But some customers south of Carlton remain without power.
The Rising Eagle Road Fire, west of Highway 20 between Twisp and Winthrop, explodes over hilly terrain beginning around 2 p.m., apparently caused by a spark thrown from a vehicle rim after a flat tire. It burns more than 500 acres and destroys 10 homes. A massive firefighting effort on the ground and in the air contains the fire, but not before it threatens the fire camp at Liberty Bell High School and forces evacuations or road closures in surrounding areas. Highway 20 is closed during the firefighting efforts.
A ferocious windstorm moves through the valley, toppling trees across roads and onto buildings. The storm causes more power outages. Little Bridge Creek Fire starts west of Twisp and raises concerns because of its proximity to Twisp River and Sun Mountain Lodge. Parts of the fire are also visible from the Mazama area.
Officials begin to compile information about fire-related losses as the basis for an application for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), to be submitted to Gov. Jay Inslee by Aug. 6. Local groups begin making plans for longterm recovery efforts.
Upper Falls Fire starts near Falls Creek in the Chewuch River drainage area northwest of Winthrop.
FEMA approves disaster declaration for public assistance to help repair public infrastructure damaged in the Carlton Complex Fire. But FEMA later denies a separate request for funds to help individuals, even after the governor appealed the decision. The State Department of Commerce approves a $150,000 grant to help the Methow Valley and Okanogan County mount a marketing campaign to encourage tourism and draw visitors back to the region. The Carlton Complex Fire is in the mop-up and containment phase. The fire camp is relocated to TwispCarlton Road. Hank Cramer is named to head the Methow Valley’s Long-Term Recovery Organization; Room One is designated as the coordinating agency.
Torrential rains and resulting mudslides destroy or damage a dozen homes in the Benson Creek area, along Highway 153 between Twisp and Carlton, and on Frazer Creek along Highway 20. Fields are covered with mud and outbuildings destroyed as well. Three of the Wenner Lakes dams, between Benson Creek and Finley Canyon, collapse. State highways 20 and 153 suffer mudslide damage and both are closed for repairs. Highway 20 is soon opened to single-lane traffic with a pilot car. Highway 153 repairs are slowed by a dispute between the state and a property owner over an easement necessary for work to continue. The state seeks condemnation of the land in dispute and eventually figures out a work-around that allows the road to be re-opened. The Highway 153 closure and a detour by way
of Twisp-Carlton Road cause an enormous economic hardship at the Carlton General Store.
The Carlton Complex Fire is declared contained.
Highway 153 between Carlton and Twisp is re-opened for traffic.
Claims are filed by 65 individuals against the state of Washington for damages caused by the Carlton Complex Fire.
A cracked supporting column forces closure of the Methow River bridge at Carlton, and the road is closed again. Emergency repairs allow the road to be opened again on Oct. 23.
The Okanogan County commissioners hold a public meeting to gather information regarding the management of the Carlton Complex Fire. They invite the public to express concerns or commendations about the performance of various agencies during the fire.
The state Senate Natural Resources & Parks Committee holds a hearing about the state’s most severe recent natural disasters, the Carlton Complex Fire and the Oso mudslide. Okanogan County Commissioner Ray Campbell, Twisp Mayor Soo IngMoody and Pateros Mayor George Brady testify and ask for financial support to rebuild infrastructure and housing. Campbell criticizes the Washington Department of Natural Resources for negligence and failure to save homes.
A 4-foot diameter culvert installed to try to contain runoff from the Leecher Creek drainage becomes plugged with mud and debris brought down by heavy rain and sends water over Highway 153 again. The highway remains open as Washington State Department of Transportation works on repairs. ❖ TRIAL BY FIRE 51
As the world watched, Cinder grew from a helpless, badly burned cub to a healthy bear who will be returned to her Methow Valley home in 2015. PHOTOS COURTESY LTWC
Burned bear becomes worldwide celebrity Cinder the bear will eventually return to the Methow Valley By Ann McCreary
Cinder the bear, who gained international attention when she was badly burned in the Carlton Complex Fire, is spending the winter at a bear rehabilitation center in Idaho before her expected return to the Methow Valley in the spring. The bear cub was discovered wandering alone on French Creek about two weeks after the wildfire, barely able to walk on paws that were 52 TRIAL BY FIRE
severely burned. She was flown to Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care (LTWC) on Aug. 4, and spent four months being treated for burns to her paws, head and chest. For several weeks her injured paws had to be kept bandaged. A second-year cub (born in 2013), Cinder was emaciated and weighed only 39 pounds when she arrived for treatment. When her caregivers at LTWC determined she was healed and healthy enough to move to the rehabilitation center, Cinder weighed almost 100 pounds. Cinder will continue her recovery at Idaho Black Bear Rehabilitation (IBBR) near Boise. She will stay in an outdoor enclosure with other bears that are being rehabilitated before being released back to the wild. Her time at IBBR will allow Cinder’s paws time to toughen up and
will allow her to learn to socialize with other bears, said Sally Maughan, director of IBBR. Rich Beausoleil, bear specialist for Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, will probably collect Cinder in late May or early June and bring her back to the Methow Valley for release, Maughan said. Beausoleil said Cinder will be fitted with a radio collar when she is set free so biologists can follow her progress. People around the world have followed Cinder’s story on Facebook and through television and newspaper reports. During her treatment and rehabilitation, Cinder has been affectionately described as a “nasty” bear that dislikes her caretakers and loves her food. “She makes it clear she’s in charge here” at IBBR, said Maughan. ❖
Cinder quickly became accustomed to her new surroundings in Idaho. PHOTO COURTESY
A publication of the Methow Valley News
OF THE SUMMER
“If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.” — Rudyard Kipling PHOTO BY MARCY STAMPER www.MethowValleyNews.com
TRIAL BY FIRE 53
Hauling out the scrap Manthy Salcido has cleared hundreds of tons of junk metal from burned building sites By Marcy Stamper
Manthy Salcido, who lost her house near Indian Dan Canyon in the fire, has channeled her energies into an almost Herculean project that helps her family and others whose homes burned — and allows the metal that withstood the fire to be reused. Salcido has collected and recycled more than 450 tons of charred, twisted and buckled metal from the wreckage to be processed in scrap yards. By late fall, she and her husband had moved 149 tons out of Okanogan County, hauling two trailers a day to East Wenatchee. “We’d haul in the morning and load more in the afternoon for the next day,” she said. Because payments for scrap metal had dropped from $160 to $120 per ton in just three months, Salcido expected to have to stockpile the metal for months while waiting for more favorable prices, but Sutton Salvage, based in Lewiston, Idaho, offered her a good price and came to pick up the pile. The company carted off nine flatbed semis of baled metal, plus another four of uncrushed, heavier metal she had stockpiled, said Salcido. The scrap-metal mission was launched after Salcido’s 16-year-old son, Zane, a junior in high school, sold wheel rims as scrap metal and thought that collecting metal for scrap would be a good way to help others. The Salcidos’ house was uninsured and they also hoped that income from the scrap could help them earn money toward rebuilding their own home. Although local volunteers and relief organizations cleared sites down to the foundation, they were unable to take the metal and left it stacked onsite, said Salcido. But getting the metal to the landfill is difficult and costly, particularly for people who lost vehicles. Salcido has been assisted in her scrapmetal project by hundreds of volunteers. 54 TRIAL BY FIRE
They are not charging anyone for the volunteers to come collect the metal. “I don’t want people to pay to have it hauled off,” she said. She’s able to keep a portion of the price per ton.
Initially, Salcido and her volunteers picked up almost all the metal by hand, but this fall, her husband bought her a grappler and an excavator so she can load it more efficiently. “I never knew what an excavator with a thumb was,” she said. Before getting involved in the scrap-metal business, Salcido was what she called a “6 a.m.-to-10 p.m. stay-at-home mom.” She has four children, ages 2 to 19. After their home burned, the family lived in a camp trailer for seven weeks. They are now renting a house in Douglas County, near the kids’ school. Even after clearing more than 130 ravaged home sites, Salcido is still affected by what she finds. At a site on French Creek, she extracted a canning jar from the rubble that had fused into a misshapen blob. “I read somewhere than canning jars melt at 2,500 degrees,” she said. “You’re walking through a total stranger’s house — you’re literally walking on their lives.” As she watched heavy equipment pick up cast-iron stoves and mangled sheets of roofing as if they were toys, Salcido thought about all the scrap she had loaded by hand. The crew from Mennonite Disaster Service brought 20 people, three dump trucks, a track hoe and several tractors to help clean up a dozen sites this fall. While the Salcido family hopes to earn some money from their scrapmetal efforts, so far they have saved little. “With the cost of gas and tires — if it were about me making money to put toward our own house, I would have quit months ago,” said
Above: Even after clearing more than 130 ravaged home sites, Manthy Salcido is still affected by what she finds. “You’re walking through a total stranger’s house — you’re literally walking on their lives,” she said. Right: A fraction of the 450 tons of charred, twisted and buckled metal Salcido and her group of volunteers have collected. PHOTOS BY MARCY STAMPER Salcido. “Now it’s about helping people. I wouldn’t have it any other way.” She is still making arrangements to clear more sites and has two dozen on her list. “The biggest payoff is the people and the atmosphere — they’ve very gracious and very giving,” she said. ❖ A publication of the Methow Valley News
At Amy’s Manor, Pamela Ahl is bewildered by a fire that destroys buildings and trees, yet only burnt the edges of these magazine pages that the firestorm carried out of a burning shed and deposited all over the landscape. PHOTO BY JOANNA BASTIAN
An interrupted vacation Joe and Pamela Ahl hustled back home when the flames threatened Amy’s Manor www.MethowValleyNews.com
By Joanna Bastian
AMELA and Joe Ahl live at Amy’s Manor, on a bluff above the Methow River. The manor has been in the family since 1911, when Pamela’s great-great-uncle homesteaded there. Amy’s Manor is named after Pamela’s grandmother. The historic homestead has been a valley icon for generations. Pamela’s sister opened it up to the public as a bed-and-breakfast nearly 30 years
ago. Until recently, the grounds were used for weddings and events. This past year, Pamela had retired from catering and event planning. She and Joe live in the manor. On July 16, they decided to escape the heat and the winds of the Methow and relax in the fresh sea air of the San Juan Islands. Lightning started fires on Monday, miles away from their home. On Tuesday the couple saw “massive air power” attacking the fires up
valley from them. On Wednesday the planes and helicopters were quiet, and the couple saw firefighters just “hanging out at Hank’s grocery store in Twisp,” Pamela said. Seeing the reduction of activity and the relaxed attitude of the fire professionals, the Ahls thought it was safe to leave — that the firefighters had control of the situation. Pamela had spent the week watering, saturating all the green spaces heavily. The couple routinely cleared brush and actively TRIAL BY FIRE 55
After the fire, very little remained of the 100-year-old-barn and expansive garden. PHOTO COURTESY PAMELA AHL practiced fire protection around their home. The yard had 96 pop-up sprinklers. It seemed as though they had nothing to worry about. But just as they settled into their vacation on Thursday, friends began calling to say all the trees were on fire in the lower valley. The Ahls sped home. “We get Amber Alerts from out of state, why not fire alerts?” Pamela said.
Their 19-year-old son Derek worked frantically all day Thursday to move photos, computers and important papers out of their home and transferred the cars and tractor to safety in the middle of the orchard. Pamela requested that Derek save her cookbooks, but her son said they were too heavy. At the last possible moment, Derek escaped up the valley, his path to the lower valley cut off as fire closed in on both sides of the highway. When the Ahls returned home on Friday, the lawn furniture was pockmarked with holes from burning embers. The 100-year-old barn, which had served as a backdrop for many weddings at Amy’s Manor, had burned to the ground. The house was still there, but a storage shed next to the guest cottage was lost. The shed had been filled with family mementos and outdoor recreational equipment. As she stepped across some unidentifiable lumps, Pamela said “my snowshoes were right about here.” Burned fragments remained of picture frames, vases and the champagne bottle from the night that Joe and Pamela were engaged. “The 56 TRIAL BY FIRE
only thing we were able to find in one piece was a clay handprint Derek made when he was 8 years old,” she said. The heat from the burning shed melted all the window blinds in the cottage, and bubbled the paint on the outside. Underneath the cottage, the crawl space filled with smoke and began to smolder. Smoke came up through the floorboards and out the faucets and handles in the bathroom. Everything — flooring, countertops, ceilings, window tracks — had to be replaced because it was either smokedamaged or melted. The landscaping, although surrounded with green space and lush wet grass, suffered greatly. The hedges lining the stone walls are gone, the dahlias, tomatoes and eggplants were just blackened sticks. The giant lavender and lilac bushes are also gone. Cedars, ponderosas, arborvitae, hedgerows, flowering bushes and towering trees were all burnt beyond recognition, or completely gone.
Oddly, when they returned home to all the loss, the Ahls found humor in what did not burn. Colorful pages of magazines lay all over the yard and garden. A singed page of pumpkin recipes lay in the pumpkin patch. Pamela’s collection of Gourmet magazines was in the storage shed and when the shed went up, the magazine pages flew about in the firestorm and settled on the ground, refusing to burn. Pamela saved all the singed pages to make a collage. Every weekend since the fire the Ahls have been busy with cleanup
The Ahls’ gardens and 100-year-old barn before the fire. PHOTO COURTESY PAMELA AHL and restoration. Concerned about erosion and the coming rains, Pamela called every agency she could think of in the days after the fire. The steep driveway above Highway 153 was a burnt mess of downed trees and ash. Rolling rocks and trees could wash down during a storm and either block the road or injure someone. Frustrated with the lack of assistance and slowness to respond, the Ahls did their own research and found erosion mats. At a personal cost of $5,000, they bought mats and hired crews to help stabilize the bank above Highway 153. “The agencies have failed us miserably,” Pamela
said. “They drive around and have meetings, but claim to have no funding. They were not prepared for an event as large as this.” The biggest impact Pamela has seen since the fires is the loss of wildlife. Eight grey squirrels used to live in their trees, and now there is only one. Lynx and bobcats used to come by, but none have been seen since the fires. The number of birds has decreased, too. “We used to have a pair of doves. They were here for about a week after the fires, but then left,” Pamela said. Miraculously, her two outdoor cats, Teeny Weeny and Charles, survived. ❖ A publication of the Methow Valley News
Watching from a distance By Pen Barnes
am a Methow Valley “second homer.” I had a house for 10 years outside of Winthrop and live most of the time 450 miles away, but once a month I point my car north and head “home.” I was not in the valley the days of the firestorms. However, that fire satellite program on the Internet that showed the wind direction and hotspots was mesmerizing; I watched it compulsively in real time on my computer as the fire ate the valley. However, there was this sickening feeling. This was not a computer game — it was the friends and places I love at risk or being destroyed. It was like watching a car wreck in slow motion with my family inside, and there was nothing I could do to stop it. ❖ Pen Barnes lives in Portland, Oregon
Driving the burn By R aleigh Bowden
PON returning to the Methow Valley five days into “The Fire of ’14,” I found myself drawn to “drive the burn” day after day. Was it to make it real? Was it to create a bond with those more affected by the fire than I — those who lost houses, outbuildings, trees — or can one even ask, “more affected that I?” Was it an attempt to “feel their pain?” So I drove Balky Hill, where our home is, where behind us everything, including many houses, burned — the Pearrygin Lake area, Finley Canyon, Benson Creek. I drove them over and over. I bypassed “road closed” signs and fire trucks as if I had a legitimate reason to be there. The cows bothered me a lot — the ones that perished at the cattle guard with no way over, and the ones whose feet were burned so badly they had to be put down. Then, the mudslides. I drove them again: Benson Creek, Highway 153 to the edge of the washout, Finley Canyon. I looked at the aerial view on the Methow Conservancy website. I drove Benson Creek again and again. What is that about? Now in September, with grass coming up in the burn in many places, I drive it again to watch the grass grow, or to look for new signs of life. Again and again. I think about taking the sage seed from our land and sprinkling it on the burn this fall so it might come up in the spring. I think about those half-burned trees,
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Near the end of October, some groves of trees on Balky Hill showed promising signs of recovery. PHOTO BY DARLA HUSSEY wondering if they will grow or die over time. I see the little aspens in masses coming up, almost a foot high, in burned-out groves. Still today, almost every meeting
starts with a half hour of storytelling about the fire, making it part of our history and part of our healing. ❖ Raleigh Bowden lives near Twisp.
Valley Built Valley Strong Tue & Thurs: 10am-4pm Saturday: 9am-4pm 997-0520 www.methowrecycles.org. TRIAL BY FIRE 57
The dream becomes a nightmare By Bill Bauer
HE fire started Monday or Tuesday (July 14 and 15), caused by lightning strikes. By Wednesday I could see an orange glow even at midnight. It was difficult to sleep — triple-digit temperatures, low humidity, no rain since May. I could see flames and smoke on the north side of Highway 20 by Thursday. More intense activity. I watch tall pines ignite like matchsticks. People are arriving home to observe and pack, but never get a Level 2 warning, nor even a Level 1 although fires in the area are obvious. Not until about noon do I start two sprinklers going on the west and south side of the house. I listen to local radio KTRT-FM’s repetition of news that the power will be cut soon, but nothing much else. The phone is useless, as there is no AT&T service. No fire people or police are coming by, just going up and down Highway 20. The first plane is flying low overhead but I never see the fire retardant dropped — it must be in the Finley Canyon or Upper Beaver Creek areas. I’m never told about the fire to the south of me until an Okanogan County sheriff’s deputy arrives about 5:30 p.m. to tell me to evacuate, after power was cut at 4:30 p.m. At this point, the Loup area is chaotic and scary — a flashback to Vietnam. Because I wouldn’t have time to decide which of my books to save, I did manage to throw in the car the library books from Twisp that were on my granite counter in the kitchen area. I manage to get some stuff loaded into my Subaru Forester, still thinking that I’ll return in the morning to the cabin. I’m frantic at this point, looking for important papers, mementos, clothes, camping gear. Not much time, maybe 20 minutes, as the smoke is getting thicker. It’s difficult to breathe and my eyes are watering. Luckily, the road is closed because as I go down my driveway and turn onto Highway 20 58 TRIAL BY FIRE
heading for Twisp, I can barely see the road or nearby hillsides. Collision is possible with other vehicles, emergency or not. Further down I have to drive on the left side of the road as flames have reached the right side of the road. Telephone poles and electrical wires are dangling. More flashbacks. When I reach Tice Ranch, I pull over to snap some photos. I’m so rattled that, thinking I had shut off the car, I start it again.
Road to hell
The beautiful Loup area behind me that was my retirement paradise has become the road to hell. It looks like an atom bomb has gone off, with billowing plumes of smoke reaching the heavens. As I approach the intersection of highways 20 and 153, traffic is backed up. I called my friends in Seattle on my neighbor’s phone (Verizon) in a panic to see if they wanted their circular saw saved, but apologized that their extension ladder may not make it. Mostly I see fire trucks and tankers and police directing traffic. I can’t help wonder why they’re not up the road where people and houses need saving. I again stop at the road leading to the airport, where people are gawking at the impressive wall of fire. Some are homeowners like me who have escaped, but mostly they’re onlookers (disaster tourists) glad that they don’t live up that way. I continue into town in despair, my heart racing and head hanging in gloom, trying not to think of what I’ll find in the morning. There’s a meeting to attend at the Methow Valley Community Center that night, which is packed with people, kids and dogs milling about the gym, most of them in shock like me waiting for an event to begin like a concert. Speakers are introduced and people clap like they’re some kind of rock stars. I refuse. I’ll clap when I find my house intact tomorrow. After the bizarre show with little information or answers — no
PHOTOS COURTESY BILL BAUER
questions taken, some people yelling anyway — I wander over to Hank’s Harvest Foods to eat something and ponder my fate. The place is full of young volunteer firefighters who seem to be in as much a daze as me. Later, I drive to the Twisp Valley Grange, where Red Cross has set up a shelter for people who are displaced. For the moment, besides the volunteers there I’m the only one bedding down for the night on a cot. It’s windy, so I know that will only serve to fan the flames creating more destruction. Sleep does not come easily as I pray my house of cards will not fall down, having only lived there for just over a year with 64 years of my life entombed, waiting for my return. Years of traveling, years of photo work, years of collecting books on photography, poetry, travel, most of it still packed in boxes. The bookcase I just finished making is awaiting the books to be placed on its shelves. Then there are the special, endearing knickknacks that I saved after my mother passed on. I was able to save my father’s camera. I remember him taking many photos of my brothers and me over the years, especially during summer vacations. Too late now to retrieve more.
Finally, I manage to sleep after the many thoughts that kept me up. Only exhaustion allowed me to rest. I wake at first light and out by 7:30 a.m. I drive immediately back from where I came the day before, hoping beyond hope, my stress level affecting my stomach.
Nothing but ruins
Back to the intersection of highways 20 and 153, there is less traffic and the smoke and plumes have dissipated. I have to explain to the guard manning the roadblock that I live up there. Anticipation is killing me, but as I draw near where normally I would catch a glimpse of my place on the hill above my neighbors I see nothing, except that my neighbors on either side of me down below have survived. I park at the entrance of my road A publication of the Methow Valley News
as power pole and lines lay across it. I walk in a somber mood up the road to the rubble that was my dream, now smoking, lying in ruins. Toxic smell. One of the garden boxes — creosote railroad ties — is still on fire. I manage to kick dirt on it but it doesn’t go out. I walk around snapping some photos with my digital camera while my Nikon sits in the car, happy to have been rescued. Without tools and heavy equipment to clear the debris, my heart and head are not into staying, so I head back to town. But not before seeing the neighbor below me, whose house surrounded by green was intact like nothing happened at all. My trees and shrubs are blackened while theirs green and alive. I get a hug and condolences from the wife, then I’m on my way — saying, in shock, that I may never return.
Another iconic figure claimed by the fire The other victim of the Carlton Complex Fire was a wellknown cattleman, orchardist and life-long Okanogan County resident, Dan Gebbers. He was injured in a fall while helping fight fires on his family’s property and suffered a concussion. Gebbers never recovered and died in October. Gebbers, 84, was the patriarch of the country’s largest family-owned agricultural operation, Gebbers Farms. His family homesteaded around the Alta Lake area in the early 1900s. www.MethowValleyNews.com
In town I stop to see the previous owners of the house (Patrick McGann and his wife, Jennifer) to show them the pictures of their destroyed house they built. I decide to head for Seattle where I have friends. I couldn’t take another night at the Red Cross shelter. The only way out of the valley is Highway 20 going west through Winthrop and Mazama. I can’t believe the Rhythm & Blues Festival in Winthrop has not been cancelled as I drive by the multitudes. As I drive towards Washington Pass, my head has barely come down to earth, making driving difficult. Thoughts of the movie Thelma and Louise appear as the last scene plays out in the rear view mirror as I approach the summit. ❖ PHOTO COURTESY BILL B AUER
Bill Bauer lives in Twisp.
Losing our ‘neighbor on a tractor’ Reprinted from the July 30 edition of the Methow Valley News By Joanna Bastian
My house is still there. The fire burned underneath the bedroom porch and along the flowerbeds but stopped short at the house. The bees are still there, buzzing away happily in a square of green gardens amidst a blackened landscape. The beautiful backyard, creek-side porch, fruit trees, hummingbird feeders and strawberry patch are all still there, but our neighbor, Robert Koczewski, is not. He died of an apparent heart attack last week while helping defend his neighborhood against fire. I first met Robert in the summer of 2009. He had called me on the phone after receiving my letter asking what was it like to live on Gold Creek. It was one of those phone conversations where words are forgotten, but not the way someone made you feel. Robert loved living on Gold Creek, and enjoyed talking about it even more. Shortly after that phone conversation, we became neighbors, and I started referring to Robert as my
Robert Koczewski “neighbor-on-a-tractor.” It is a common question for people in the Methow Valley to ask where the other lives. Perhaps what is not so common is the reaction, “Oh, you live next to Robert!” And then the conversation turns to their own recollection of interacting with our iconic neighbor. One woman stated, “I’ve been up there — Robert keeps that place looking like a five-star resort!” It is true. In winter, our neighborhood does indeed resemble a winter wonderland resort where all
the paths are plowed with perfectly square edges. Tall and rugged, deeply tanned, the retired U.S. Marine Corps officer and state trooper kept our little neighborhood running like a tight ship. He rounded up wayward cows, contacted the owners, and made sure the wandering bovines did not create too much havoc before the owners came to collect them. He mowed neat barriers along the length of the driveway and around our garden. He told offcolor jokes, pampered his cats, gave kids rides on his horses and tractors, and was sweet on his wife. All this national attention would make Robert blush. He never wanted recognition, never sought the spotlight. It spoke volumes of his impact in this world when the president of the United States called last week to offer condolences to Robert’s wife, Patty. If Robert had to leave us, the only comforting thought is that he did so while protecting his wife and the life they built here on Gold Creek. My house is still there. But the “home” with my neighbor-on-a-tractor is gone. ❖ TRIAL BY FIRE 59
How preparation, brave firefighters and a bit of luck saved our home By Ken Bevis
HIS story is cobbled together from various participants, with lessons and morals throughout. If you live in fire country, pay attention. Friday, Aug. 1, at approximately 1:30 p.m. a trailer got a flat tire on Highway 153 near Winthrop. The driver didn’t notice for a short ways and the steel rim showered sparks along the road into extremely dry grass and brush. A fire immediately started. Unfortunately, the wind was blowing and in a very short time the fire was moving fast and headed northwest, directly towards our house on Rising Eagle Road. The temperature was around 100 degrees. We live on a hill, surrounded by scattered ponderosa pines and, before the fire, bunchgrass and considerable mature bitterbrush. It was a dry winter and a wet spring, making for lush growth, and a very hot, dry summer — a bad combination. The Carlton Complex Fire had erupted 16 days earlier directly across the valley from us, spreading massive destruction and havoc in our area. It was a true firestorm, once moving 30 miles in seven hours and destroying much forest and property in its path, including parts of Pateros. We were not in that fire’s path, but watched the fire burn across the valley for many days. We got ready in case fire came our way with our own Level 1 evacuation preparation. My wife, Teri, and I worked on our defensible space, weed-whacking tall grass, pulling flammable materials away from the house, and running sprinklers to wet down the lawn and adjacent areas. We worked hardest within the 30 feet closest to the buildings, but I thought a lot about 60 TRIAL BY FIRE
A box of wood scraps caught fire, sending flames 6 to 8 feet into the air. PHOTO BY ED STOCKARD where I expected a fire to come from. This preparation was integral to what happened next. When the Rising Eagle Road Fire erupted, the Okanogan County Fire District 6 volunteers were on the scene in a few short minutes. They came up our drive and positioned themselves with hoses laid around the perimeter of the house. We have a wide circular turn-around in front of the house, and they felt they could maneuver to get out if they had to. Ingress and egress are essential elements if firefighters are to defend a structure. I found out later that the firefighters were forced to make some quick judgment calls as to where they could go, and some firefighters were familiar with our road and the houses up there. Hence they came and defended our house. One neighbor, tucked deep in the pines below, was not so lucky and their house burned to the ground.
Firefighters go to work
When the volunteers arrived, the fire was not quite there yet. The smoke was low and thick and visibility was very poor. Hoses were laid and very quickly the fire came roaring across the hill, pushing flames 15 to 20 feet high through tall bitterbrush (“gasoline on a stick”) and torching pine trees in the draw below the house. The firefighters sprayed water on the grassy perimeter, the woodpile (away from the shop but near the perimeter), and all around the house. They tossed away burning items I had missed, such as a hollow log that was tucked next to the house that was, in the description of a firefighter, “burning like a Roman candle.” If he hadn’t found it, the siding would have caught fire. A pile of raspberry clippings was extinguished in a garden bed 10 feet from the house. Four of my honeybee hives, 100 feet from the house, erupted into flames and burned into
oblivion. A firefighter blasted them with a hose, saving the two tallest hives. Another firefighter told me they had to hold the line because “if your house went up we were toast. It was a life-or-death situation.” The battle raged for 20 to 30 minutes in blinding smoke. The volunteers were putting out embers where they found them. The most intense part of the fast-moving fire front burned past our house in less than 30 minutes, but the hill was still considerably on fire. The fire was raging to the northwest, threatening many more homes. The crews were ordered to go to the front of the fire about a mile away and quickly pulled the hoses and moved off. My friend who was at my house described driving his fire truck down through a burning stand of overstocked ponderosa pine on our neighbor’s property with fire licking the truck on both sides. They pulled out while the hill still smoked and A publication of the Methow Valley News
burned, but the worst seemed to have passed our house. We live overlooking the North Cascades Smokejumper base at the Methow Valley State Airport. There were at least seven helicopters based there fighting the Carlton Complex Fire, and in a very short time an armada of airships with buckets began fighting the Rising Eagle Road Fire. They worked in a rotation, filling buckets in the Methow River and dropping on targets all across the fire. It was reported that this was a very intense aerial attack due to the number of air ships in the limited space. At one time there were 12 helicopters, two water bombers and the amazing DC-10 jet retardant plane attacking this fire. The fire was aimed directly at the Twin Lakes neighborhood, and the main fire camp for the Carlton Complex Fire at Liberty Bell High School. Stopping it was imperative.
Watching in horror
I missed a few things in my Firewise work, including a poorly placed box of wood scraps about 20 feet from my shop. Yes, it was too close. It caught on fire. Flames of about 6 to 8 feet high erupted after the ground crew was forced to leave. My friend, Ed Stockard, watched in horror from his house across the valley as this blaze reached towards the shop, taking photographs with his long lens. Helicopters were working the hill, but missed putting out the blazing box at least five times. Then, a big orange and white Sikorsky S58T scored a bulls-eye bucket drop on the blazing wood box! Ed cheered. The shop has chainsaw gas, propane tanks, etc, which would have set the nearby house on fire. Airships continued to work the hill and drop water on hot spots and structures for several hours, as helicopters and planes buzzed the smoky air. We made it to Ed’s house across the valley, about 1.5 miles east. From there, we watched the fire burning avidly across the hill, and the helicopters dropping water on the hot spots. We watched in horror as another friend and neighbor’s beautiful woodland custom home burned to the ground. Nearer our house, one fulltime home, two part-time cabins and two garages also burned down. These www.MethowValleyNews.com
Practicing Firewise principles contributed to Bevis’ house surviving the Rising Eagle Road Fire . PHOTO COURTESY KEN BEVIS structures burned completely, leaving only twisted metal and unburnables where once stood someone’s work and dreams. All told, 10 houses and numerous outbuildings burned down in the Rising Eagle Fire, a small addon to the massive 250,000-plus-acre Carlton Complex Fire, in which over 350 homes and numerous outbuildings burned in Washington’s largest ever wildfire. I came home at midnight, with Ed in tow, to a smoky, smoldering hillside and grabbed my evacuation boxes that had been left behind in the 10 minutes Teri had to get out earlier in the day. Ed and I could see three smoking hot spots on the hillside below the house from across the valley and we hunted them down. We buried smoldering pieces of firewood that had been blasted off of the fire pit by helicopter water drops. One was close to some remaining dry grass and could have been a problem. I could not sleep and returned a few short hours later at dawn to find our home standing. I looked all around for embers and found two more smoking spots near the house that I doused with buckets of water. I walked the hill in shock at the apparent devastation on our property and neighborhood, and amazement that our house was still standing. Over the next several days, shifts of firefighters came across our hill looking for hot spots. They were from at least five states. The Okanogan Public Utility District workers immediately started repairing the
burned-out power lines. Our little forest lay a blackened smoking ruin.
But our house stands in a little green spot. Lessons: • Preparation made a big difference. The firefighters had something to work with. It was not perfect, but defensible space was present. Green lawn and gravel. Wetted ground. Flammables pulled away from the buildings, leaves swept up. Flameresistant deck materials. Sprinklers running at the most vulnerable side. • Firefighter access is vital. They were able to get here. A wide turnaround for a fire truck was essential. Good ingress and egress. The shared road below crossing the neighbor’s property was too thick with trees but the road is wide and graveled. We were planning to enter into a Department of Natural Resources-sponsored thinning project this year. Luckily, the fire district decided to come in and fight our fire. Once here, the professionalism of the fire team took over and they worked hard to save the house. • Air support was a very fortunate circumstance. The burning box would have been caught by the local fire fighters in normal circumstances, but the helicopters kept the fire at bay and pushed back hard. If not for the Carlton Complex Fire, no helicopters would have been immediately available, much less 12. • Follow-up afterwards is important. Our mop-up was important to prevent an after-the-fact fire from
erupting. Teri and I have continued to work on our Firewise prescription (from an inspection by Okanogan Conservation District), cutting back brush and trees that could cause problems in another event. • There’s an element of luck. My firefighter friend said that fire is “fickle.” He has seen it burn places where people did almost everything just right, but it wasn’t enough. He described a house with excellent defensible space, trees well-spaced back from the house, but a woodpile stacked against the house on the second floor deck. The woodpile caught fire and was burning out of control when they got there. That house burned to the ground. We found several small ember burns in vulnerable places afterwards. Our Trex decking is marked all over with black burn scars. The patio furniture is full of melted holes. The details matter. My wife and I were traumatized by this experience, but came out OK. It easily could have had a very different outcome. We feel a mixture of deep sadness for our friends and neighbors who lost homes, and elation that our home was spared. It is a strange feeling that I never wish to repeat. I share this story as a witness to Firewise. It is real. If you live in fire country, take steps to prepare for fire. It is not if fire will burn near you, but when. Be ready. ❖ Ken Bevis is a state Department of Natural Resources stewardship wildlife biologist. TRIAL BY FIRE 61
The longest ride By Shelley L. Block
No, I am not in shock! No, I’m not all right, but I’m not going to the hospital! I don’t want to go, I’ll be fine. My leg doesn’t seem to be worse, I fell on my shoulder and ribs. It feels like I just cracked my ribs on my right side. Oh god, does this have to be another big deal, Michael? All right, then take me to Three Rivers Hospital in Brewster, Highway 20’s closed, we’ll never get to Omak.
T was smoky and chalkylooking through the window of the Suburban. It was drawing closer to dark. There was nothing but glowing embers in the distant hills and bursts of fire climbing limb upon limb on pines that couldn’t run away. I glimpsed back at my horses boarded up in the Thurlows’ steer pen, and as we pulled away I saw the everencroaching flames flirting with the sagebrush. Finley Canyon was burning hard. I heard Shawn Thurlow’s voice ringing in my ears. He had allowed Handsome and Quincy to take safe haven there at least for the night, or maybe at best a few hours? My blood started racing in my veins. Leave the doctor out of this, he was
just trying to help, I needed help (sob). Where were you? You were supposed to be there to help me move my horses, like we planned. I waited, I called. I called you a hundred times from work and when I got home all the phones were dead, I couldn’t contact you! The sheriff’s deputy stopped to tie a pink piece of flagging tape on the brown-painted gate, where the “no trespassing” sign was hung. Fear had hit me — my heart free-fell like an elevator in an earthquake. I lunged off the steps to meet him and I knew we were in trouble. I watched him artfully tie the tape, as if he were hitching a horse, then in a slow western stance, he told me not to take too long ma’am, and to get my pretty babies out now, it was Level 3. I ran the best I could for my saddle, tack, helmet and boots. The road was crawling with fire trucks. My sprinklers that we had set the night before hissed away, and the horses were nervously pacing the length of the corral. I realized, with one wrong turn and a sharp pain in my leg, that I didn’t know how far I would get without help. I was blowing my leadership qualities and my rescued thoroughbred, 14 going on 2, was sensing my fear.
Damn all my thoughts, damn it! I should have stopped and got my western saddle from the Tice Ranch. If I have to ride now all I’ve got is an English saddle. God, Shelley, what were you thinking, you are so stupid. Quincy, (whistle) come here boy, stand. Quincy, good boy, we’re going for a walk on the road back home over to the ranch, it’s only 2 miles and you are going to be big and brave and show Handsome here how we do it! I finished knotting the rope halters on them and snapped on a lead rope. I hurried my hands until they started to shake and I prayed to god Mike would show up soon. Once Quincy’s bridle was on I was done, it was time to go. I opened the gate. We all rushed — Handsome danced and Quincy held steady on my left. More traffic, and Handsome started taking too much lead rope. Quincy, on the other hand, was holding back. It was hot and I could see smoke and knew the fire was pressing on fast, south from upper Beaver Creek. I thought, only a bit further until the roadblock at Highway 20 and Lower Beaver. Ow! God, more pain, all right, I would have to ride. Nothing was worse than feeling helpless. I have never felt it, like the moment that I realized my injured right leg was not strong enough to stand on and
I couldn’t jump high enough off of the road to throw myself on my horse’s back. So there I stood and wanted to cry, reduced to ashes in my own way. A car was coming, a face I knew — Doc — and then a motorcycle. Oh no, the noise, the revving of the engine seemed like yet another battle. I was delirious and almost felt like I was in a movie, that this in fact wasn’t real, when I found myself suddenly begging for help. My debilitated state and sobriety almost strangling me, I croaked out a voice that didn’t sound like mine. I need help, help me please, help me. Handsome raised his head over and over; he pulled to get free, he darted back and forth wildly, as Doc said he would help me and immediately parked his car. His compadre on his motorcycle seemed tense, slow, unwilling, then parked his bike. I knew him, but I didn’t much like him. We walked. I handed Doc the lead and he took Handsome. Harry, who was on the bike, immediately told me I should be riding my horse. I knew better. If something were to happen, I could be dragged through barbwire that lined both sides of Beaver Creek Road. I finally said, I can do that but I need help up. That was the invitation to my demise and the ticket to their
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foregoing any further assistance I may need. Up I went with a boost. We walked a slow pace, time seemed to stand still. I moved my head in slow motion to the east. I could see dark plumes toward Loup Loup, and straight ahead toward Benson Creek and then Carlton. The giant smoke mushrooms were signs of engorgement. I thought of all the wildlife, all the trees, I thought of my grandmother and how much I was like her, how much I missed her, how she lived through the Peshtigo fire in Wisconsin, that I never tired of her stories and that I wouldn’t get to tell her my story about the great fire in the Methow Valley, ever. It was war and this was the Old West. I was not in Twisp, I was in Silver. I heard the echoing of my horse’s feet striking the pavement. The air struck a tombstone heat wave when Doc suddenly let go of Handsome’s lead and he clambered past us, but the rope was in my hand. Handsome bolted wildly, cutting me and Quincy off, colliding in the front. Quincy reared as the rope fell down near his feet, stepping on it, and with a twist and jerk, off I fell. I slammed so hard I must have left my body. My helmet cracked and rolled off into the ditch and the wind was knocked out of me. One deep breath relieved any pain I had in my right leg as if it were trading places. What the hell is going on here? Shelley, Shelley are you all right? It was Mike. What are you doing? Why didn’t you wait for me? You’re going the wrong direction. Get in the Suburban. God damn it I’d like to hit him, what did they do to you? We’re going to the hospital, now! Dr. Merrick? Can I see the x-rays? You have three broken ribs young lady. You’re very lucky that your lungs weren’t punctured. With the roads closed, not being able to make it to Brewster, you almost landed in Beaver Creek Cemetery. I guess I’ve got, one more silver dollar, Dr. Merrick. Do you ever miss your grandfather, Dr. M? ❖ Shelley L. Block lives in Twisp. www.MethowValleyNews.com
Two miles from Pateros, a welcome sign on Highway 97 went up in flames. PHOTO COURTESY DAVID GROSS
A never-ending night Pateros neighbors joined forces to save their homes By Joanna Bastian
ALPH Buchanan and his wife, Wendy, live in the town of Pateros, next door to Nicole and Ryan Smith. Their neighborhood comprises the first row of houses along the hills of Pateros. They have expansive views of the lake and the tidy bedroom community. On Thursday evening, Ralph, Ryan, and family friend Sam Shaw from Brewster watched in horror as the fires crested the hill behind the Pateros water towers around 6:30 p.m. “The fire crews were at Watson Draw and Indian Dan. I knew there was nobody around to fight this,”
Ralph Buchanan said. He grew up in Pateros, and fought diligently that night along the front lines to save as many homes as he could. Ryan Smith drives water trucks on fires during the summer, and had access to a water truck belonging to Bill Hoffman. Buchanan, Smith and Shaw worked throughout the night to keep the flames at bay. The vinyl siding on the Buchanans’ home melted and warped in the heat. “I didn’t think that night would ever end,” Ralph Buchanan said. “It was pitch black, the lights, the sirens …” His voice trailed off and he looked at the ground while shaking his head. “Afterwards, it was tough being reminded every single day. There was a wind, sand, ash storm every day.” Nicole Smith was out of state visiting family during the fires. All she could do was listen helplessly from afar. “Coming home, the hardest part was the aftermath,” she said. “Cleaning every day, and your home
is still full of ash. Every time the sirens sound off it makes your heart clench. A little bit of PTSD [posttraumatic stress disorder].” Sirens on top of the school and city hall made everyone anxious throughout the following weeks. Wendy Buchanan noted an additional difficulty after the fires. “It is hard to find a contractor,” she said. “They are really busy.” The Buchanans’ home and yard are immaculate. The grass and bushes are neatly trimmed. The flowerbeds are tended. Their front yard along Ives Street just recently returned to normal. As the city cut down burned trees, the slash piles were placed in their front yard. “It was hard to see the piles after the cleanup left in front of the house, for months. They [the city] just now cleaned it up,” she said. “It is nice to see new life after the fire,” said Nicole Smith. “New houses, new siding, green shoots coming up, dead trees coming down.” ❖ TRIAL BY FIRE 63
Stories of resilience By Maggie Coon
N my mind, the word which best describes the land and people of the Methow Valley is “resilient.” Today, we are experiencing a great test of that quality. A major part of the landscape, our waters and the wildlife which support our life here have been transformed. And yet the story of deep capacity to respond is
being told in countless ways. On one of the perfect summer days after the fires subsided, my husband and I drove down valley and up one of the canyons hardest hit by the fire. We knew the friends who live there had fought and survived the fire with their place intact, but nothing could have prepared us for what we witnessed. Surrounded by hills of black, their gardens
shimmered in the sun. Flowers lined the path to their home, completely intact, though the blazes reached to within 25 feet of its walls. Birdsong filled the creek bed, where scorched trees stood next to those of abundant green. They told me that, already, new grasses were beginning to emerge on the charred hillsides. Their story is one of many — of community, of extraordinary
courage, of commitment and a passion for the land. They embody the love of this place and resilience in the face of extraordinary challenge that define us today and will help us chart our future course. May our collective voice be empowered as never before to protect and restore our beloved Methow Valley. ❖
for 40 years. The snowplow was unscathed. Everything else burned. A nearby house is still standing, untouched by the fire. After staying with friends for a few days, Hale and Jenkins lived in another friend’s house in Winthrop until the purchase of their house in Twisp closed. “As soon as it was over, we went forward,” Hale said. Family and friends pitched in to help them make the new house a home. “Within a week, we pretty much furnished the house,” Hale said. That doesn’t mean the transition was seamless or without emotional impact. “I’ve never been in that situation,” Hale said. “I’ve never been humbled like that. We were both overwhelmed. We are very fortunate, very blessed.” Months afterward, Hale said, “we’re good … my mom and dad brought a Christmas tree and we’re going over to the senior center to get some ornaments.” Hale also got a gift card from the Red Cross to buy new clothes, to replace the coat and boots he got through donations. Hale is more realistic than reflective when he thinks about that desperate dash down his driveway. “Thirty seconds later, and I wouldn’t be sitting here,” he said. ❖
Maggie Coon lives outside Twisp.
Narrow escape Rick Hale and Teri Jenkins left their home seconds ahead of the flames By Don Nelson
NYBODY who knows Rick Hale would tell you he’s a gregarious, outgoing, cheerful guy, always ready with a wisecrack and a smile. On July 17, Hale was an angry man with a pickup truck full of guns who wanted to know why a bunch of firefighters were standing around instead of trying to save his house. “I think I scared them,” Hale said several months later in his moretypical, laid-back demeanor. Hale admits to being a little bit scared himself at the time, having fled down his driveway through a wall of 50-foot flames and smoke so dense that only experience and instinct told him where the road was. Hale and his wife, Teri Jenkins, were living in a rental home off of Highway 20 east of Twisp. They’d 64 TRIAL BY FIRE
been in the two-story, four-bedroom home for about nine years, but were closing on a house they were buying in Twisp. They had been watching the fire in the distance for a couple of days as it moved their way. Hale, who works for Cascade Foam and Coatings, was turned away from a job site because of encroaching flames. On July 17, Hale and Jenkins watched the fast-moving fire bolt in their direction. But they didn’t know how much danger they were in until an Okanogan County sheriff’s deputy showed up and told them they had to leave. “There was no evacuation Level 1, 2, or 3,” Hale said. Just go. The fire’s speed was startling. “I looked out the front window and all I saw was fire,” Hale said. A neighbor called and told Hale and Jenkins to “get out of there now.” The couple had loaded some things in their vehicles — clothes, photographs, important documents — just in case. Jenkins left first in her car. Hale was still tossing a few things in his truck. Then he headed down the quarter-mile driveway to Highway 20. “I just punched it,” he said. “It went from 90 degrees to about 160 degrees in the cab in a second.” Hale was afraid the truck would stall in the extreme conditions.
Hale made it to Highway 20, which was so thick with smoke that he couldn’t see the roadway clearly until he made it past Upper Beaver Creek Road, where he stopped to talk to some people parked along the road. Hale kept moving west until he came to Lower Beaver Creek Road, where he encountered fire trucks and their crews. “They were laughing, talking on their cell phones. They said they couldn’t help,” Hale said. The crew boss approached Hale’s truck to talk. He looked nervous. “I had all my guns on the passenger side of the front seat where he could see them,” Hale said. Hale said he used language that could not be printed in a newspaper. “I was not real happy,” he said. That night, Jenkins stayed with some friends. Hale went to the Rhythm & Blues Festival in Winthrop, where he has worked in security for many years, and camped out for a couple of nights. The couple learned later that their house finally burned about an hourand-a-half after they left. “A single fire truck could have saved it,” Hale said. “It was very disheartening. I couldn’t believe what I saw.” Lost in the fire were many family heirlooms and antique furniture, Hale said, as well as construction equipment he had been accumulating
A publication of the Methow Valley News
One firefighter’s long day By Courtney Creighton
’M a volunteer firefighter, the station captain for the Mazama station of Okanogan County Fire District 6. As volunteers, we’re naturally not interested in exposing ourselves to criticism and controversy, nor are we seeking fame and fortune, but I think the stories of the good saves need to be told. Many people are aware of the disaster stories of the Carlton Complex Fire, and the many stories of loss, but I think that the stories of the good saves, and the heroic effort that went into them, should be passed around as well. There are many of them, and I know some of the firefighters who were involved in them. On the Rising Eagle Road Fire of Aug. 1, which was a small part of the Carlton Complex Fire but very impactful to many, there were likewise a number of good stories — multiple instances of firefighters fighting long flames that were burning up to structures, or forcing a flame front to part and go around residences. But there were many firefighting crews and they were spread out all over the area, and I only know a very small part of that big picture, the part that I was directly involved with. After arriving on scene that afternoon, my crews were directed to go up Rising Eagle Road to assist other firefighters at the top with structure protection. However, we were forced back down the road by flames already
there and jumping across the road at the last switchback. So my crew and I were directed to the Wandling Road area to assist with structure protection there. We protected a couple of residences on Wandling Road from fire that was threatening them, and having finished the primary protection work, we were proceeding to start on secondary work when the heavy smoke cleared for a moment and visibility improved enough so that we could see a plume of billowing flames across the way and near a neighboring residence. We investigated and found all the property’s outbuildings, and some large pine trees nearby, fully involved and threatening the house. I determined that my structure engine and crew could save the house but, because of the enormous heat coming from the nearby flames, only if we got additional water sent to us. Our resource request was filled and a tender truck from the Fire District 6 Winthrop station was assigned to our area to keep us all provided with water. With the extra water, we kept the fire intensity at bay for hours while also ensuring that the house stayed cool.
Partway through, however, I saw small flames showing from the residence’s roof after a gust of wind. It seems an ember shower coupled with wind had driven embers under the metal roof panels and set the
Residents could only stand by and watch as firefighters made heroic efforts to save as many homes as possible. PHOTO BY DON NELSON roof decking afire. As I investigated, I fought disappointment and frustration at the prospect of losing the house after all the work we had put into protecting it. I did not have the manpower available to properly fight an attic fire. We sprayed the roof with copious water streams, trying to drive it up under the roofing panels where the fire was, and then forced entry into the house in order to access the attic and investigate properly. To my relief, the attic was not involved with fire, and the fire was limited to a small 6-inch circle of burned plywood decking. We had caught it early. I then thoroughly checked the attic for heat and
ensured that the fire was completely extinguished. As it approached dusk, the threat to the home was diminished and we started packing up our hoses and equipment for possible reassignment. I met the returning homeowner around that time and she was very grateful that we were able to save her home of 30 years. My engine left the residence shortly after that but we stayed in the immediate area until after midnight, extinguishing hotspots, and meeting with and addressing concerns from returning homeowners. ❖ Courtney Creighton lives in Mazama.
With much gratitude we thank those involved with meeting the needs of disaster survivors, in the past, in the present and in the future.
You are all true heroes.
aspengrovehome.com | 156 Riverside Ave. | (509) 996-2009
Snow Country Specialists R O O F I N G TRIAL BY FIRE 65
Saved by friends and neighbors By Julie Johnson
N Tuesday, the week of the fire, it was growing across the river from me. I live at the bottom of Libby Creek Road on Highway 153. We still felt we were safe for the time being. That morning our friends up Texas Creek had to evacuate their eight horses, so the fire crews let us through to go up and evacuate their horses and bring them down to my corrals with my two horses. We went to the river to swim and cool off. Then we noticed the sky turning black and decided to go home to check it out, and then realized the fire was ready to jump the river to our side. We watched it hit Daskams’ home and turn it into a fireball and then come across my neighbors’ mowed field in two seconds. It was trying to leap across the highway at my field but a helicopter dropped a load of water. Then the fire jumped across the highway south of my field and went right up the hill toward all my neighbors on the hill above me. I was terrified, and we decided we needed to evacuate all the 10 horses and all our vehicles. People whom I have never seen before or may never again just drove into my barnyard and started helping us. We had enough horse trailers for eight horses but needed to run two up the highway, so Betty gave one to a lady and told her to run up the road and the lady said she had never led a horse before. We told her to just
Julie Johnson’s home escaped the flames three times. PHOTO COURTESY JULIE JOHNSON go — the horse will follow. So her husband took the other horse and ran that one out too.
With the help of everyone we were able to evacuate snowmobiles, horses, a motor home, campers and cars in less then 15 minutes. It was amazing. We took everything and everyone to Carlton and found places to take horses and all our vehicles. I needed a driver for my motor home and a
Believing in the power of renewal and Methow inspiring people to care for the land Conservancy
www.methowconservancy.org 66 TRIAL BY FIRE
guy just standing on the road said he could do, it so I said the keys are in it and asked him to follow me as I drove the truck and horse trailer. We delivered horses up the valley as we went, and ended up in Twisp with two of our horses at a friend’s place where I lived in my motor home for 10 days. I was able to go back to get more of my belongings. Then on Thursday the fire came back down the creek and tried to burn me out two more We salute the bravery of the homeowners, the firefighters, and the entire Methow Valley community who all did an incredible job fighting the 2014 summer wildfires and providing support in a myriad of ways.
times. The Yakima firefighters saved my place that time at 1 a.m. So my place was saved three times and all I lost was fences. I feel so thankful I still have my place. This is such a wonderful valley and community, so we need to stay strong to make this valley come back again. I don’t know what I would have done without the kindness of my friends and neighbors. ❖ Julie Johnson lives in Carlton.
w w w. m a z a m a c o u n t r y i n n . c o m A publication of the Methow Valley News
Fire threatened this home on Texas Creek. PHOTO COURTESY MICHAEL “YOGI” MARTIN
A great summer turns hellish By Michael “Yogi” Martin
My partner, Robin, and I live up Texas Creek, near Carlton. Or rather, we did. I now reside nearer to Twisp. Our house was destroyed in the Carlton Complex wildfire in July, along with the barn, hay shed and for that matter Lower Texas Creek itself. Sublimated. Vaporized. Up until July 14, I was having a great summer. That all changed mid-day Monday, July 14. I watched from work as a thunderstorm cruised across the southern part of the valley spewing lightning and not much rain. Soon after the storm moved off, there was a column of smoke rising in the southern sky. As we watched throughout the rest of the afternoon, the column got bigger quick. I thought Gold Creek had gotten hit www.MethowValleyNews.com
again. I got a call at the end of the work day and that’s when it started getting personal: “There’s a fire above your house! You might want to get home!” So homeward I went. I started speeding when I got to Benson Creek and could see the upper reaches of the hill to the south of Texas Creek were aflame. I got home just as neighbors were setting up sprinklers in our yard. The firefighters and aviators were busy with fire lines and retardant drops on the hill to the south of us. The air show on this day was absolutely amazing. Aircraft were everywhere and being quite effective. They got the fire stopped at the top of the hill behind our house as night came on. The last retardant tanker of the day painted a beautiful thin red line
across the top of the hill above us. It really looked like the fire had gotten stopped and that was that ... or so we thought. Daylight on Tuesday (July 15) showed a fire that was cold. So off to work I went. That afternoon it all started again when the fire heated up and jumped the lines and went rampaging again. Robin called me at work: “Better get home!” We immediately got put on Level 3 evacuation notice. No Level 1 or 2, immediately on Level 3. Friends arrived to help with trucks and trailers. We moved the horses and other important things immediately. A tender and engine from Tonasket parked in the driveway. Again, by nightfall the fire had laid down but not before burning across the upper reaches of the hill to the south of us, this time a
little further downslope closer to us. We stayed the night at the house.
Things get serious
I stayed home on Wednesday (July 16). That day, things got serious. Red flag warnings were put out for high temperatures, low humidity and high winds. A bad mix during fire season. We had no idea just how crazy it would become. The fire began the day by burning away from us, in a southerly direction, at a high rate of speed. The main fire front was over the hill, out of sight. We were relieved, but also worried for others that were now threatened. Then the real red flag winds hit. The direction of the fire changed in an instant. Smoke tendrils started coming through a saddle on the ridge southeast of us. Fire followed the TRIAL BY FIRE 67
smoke through the saddle at about noon. I have no way of describing how fast this fire was moving, how it consumed whole hillsides at that speed, or even how big the flames were. Sometimes, you need to be in the moment. Neighbors to the east and south of us were severely threatened. As we watched, a 40-mile per hour wind at our backs, the fire raced back towards us, and our neighbors, into the wind! Just as the fire reached the neighbors, firefighters lit a backfire. I watched as the backfire was sucked into the main fire front, and the fire energy shifted just enough, but now severely threatened another neighbor’s house. A well-timed and placed airdrop saved that neighbor. The fire burned over two of our neighbors’ houses, totally enveloping the houses in smoke and flame. Aircraft were everywhere, and managed to save the neighbors’ houses. As we evacuated our house, I looked back and could see the neighbors’ houses still standing unscathed. Our house was next in line. We left. Thursday morning we arrived back at the house after a much needed sleep. Driving up Texas Creek toward our house showed that the fire had consumed the south side of the Texas Creek drainage to the valley bottom near Carlton. No one had any inkling of the monsters that were to arrive with afternoon red flag winds. When the winds arrived they had more force than the day before. The fire to the north of us started to consume acreage and homes of friends. We didn’t know this at the time though. The fire to the north had burned a few miles of power lines that supply electricity to the Methow Valley. We had no power. No power means no cell phone, no Internet. We had no communication, no refrigerators, no freezers, no water. I’m not what you would call a fearful person. I did some winter alpine climbing in my younger days, sailed on a 45-foot boat from Oahu to Seattle, flew helicopters as a scout pilot for the U.S. Army — you know, some adventurous stuff. I got scared on the 17th of July.
of us grew to enormous sizes as the fires ravaged over 127,000-plus acres in a 24-hour period. Many an experienced firefighter commented on the size of the plumes — absolutely the biggest any of them had ever seen. The fire to the north raced across 20 to 25 miles in that same 24-hour period, almost to Brewster. I’ve heard dozens of stories of folks who had barely enough time to flee, as the fire spread by way of extreme spotting behavior. Others talk of fire all around and the smoke as they drove away, not knowing if they could get out. Meanwhile at our house, we worked on fire lines. Everybody became a firefighter and helped friends where we could. Our place seemed safe now. The fires had passed our house. Or so it seemed. As nightfall came on and it cooled, our house looked safer. The greater surrounding area was a caldron of fire, though. The nighttime firestorm was something out of an occult horror movie. Fire like you have never imagined, much less seen. Hot, hot gaseous fire, the kind you imagine to be found only on the sun, or maybe in hell, consumed whole hillsides at a rapid rate late into the night. Houses of our friends were still being destroyed. Late Thursday we got a call (Verizon Wireless!) from the folks who were putting up our horses. They thought it prudent to evacuate the horses to a place further up valley. So at 11 p.m. we moved the horses, all
Everyone was a firefighter
Neighbors gather to assess the situation. Left to right, Chad Stoothof, Eagle Baire, Sheree Stoothof, Robin Baire. PHOTO COURTESY MICHAEL “YOGI” MARTIN
The plumes to the north and south
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of them. Friday (July 18) brought a new forecast with an extension of the red flag warnings to Saturday. The fire line near our house still looked cold. We went in search of breakfast, information on the fire, and folks who needed help. The Carlton General Store had become the gathering place for this information.
Learning about losses
It was this morning that we learned of many friends who had lost homes. There were many more we had no knowledge of and even more rumors. We could only hope. I decided to move the dirt bike back to the house in order to have the ability to scout the fire to the north should it be necessary. Fuel was a concern and only available in Twisp, and the line was long. We spent the day working on fire lines around the house in an effort to protect it. Fire to the north was making a run south, closer to the valley floor. It seemed as though the fire came back for what it missed previously, almost vengeful like. As Friday wore on we kept working in the 105-degree heat. As we worked, firefighters and dozer operators relaxed in the shade, waiting and watching for smokes along the lines in our area. We had numerous conversations with the firefighters and the supervisor of the dozers. All of them said we looked really good in our area. They were confident we had survived the fire.
The only light in the night is provided by the fire. Even the stars have left the valley, just like AT&T. – Michael “Yogi” Martin This was reassuring. At about 4 p.m. we decided to take a break from the day’s fire line building and go to the river to get a swim in. After all, things looked good in our area. So much so, that we moved the cats back home. We moved a few other things back into the house. We loaded into the truck in our swimsuits and sandals, eager to feel the rejuvenating waters of the Methow. As we crested the driveway and turned onto Texas Creek Road, we were met by a disturbing sight — black smoke at the bottom of Texas Creek, and it was being blown our way up the drainage. We decided to go assess the situation quickly, as the smoke looked to be increasing. As we approached the new smoke we finally saw the flames themselves, an angry fast-moving consuming conflagration, in the sagebrush. We turned around and quickly retreated to the house to resume slamming more fire line. We changed back in to our firefighting clothing. A friend arrived to assist us. It didn’t take much time before the fire was approaching our “go” line, a little ridge 3/4 of a mile or so below the house. That was our cut-off line — if the fire got to there we had to leave. Our friend elected to leave at this time and suggested that we do the same. Although we still refused to A publication of the Methow Valley News
believe that this was actually happening, we evacuated some of the things we had moved back in. The cats were easy to catch this time and even entered the pet carrier with no fuss. The fire had finally reached our “go” line and smoke was getting thicker, blacker, closer and more oppressive. From the time we saw this smoke, 2 miles below us, to the time we had to leave was only 45 minutes, an hour tops. And now we had to go. At first we thought we would drive up to the neighbors’ house because they had “black” around them. Robin had other ideas. She didn’t want to watch the house burn, should that happen. We elected to go out the bottom of Texas Creek, in the direction of the fire.
The drive out of Texas Creek that hot, smoky Friday afternoon is a mash-up of frames vividly burned onto the memory chips of my mind. Insistent, leaping, vibrant, angry red-orange flames all around, on both sides of the road, pushed pell mell by wind. Smoke. Futile slapping at flames by firefighters, soon to be run off by the heat and dangerous spotting. Smoke. A neighbor’s van, fully engulfed in oily sooty black smoking flames. Smoke. Firefighters left dumbfounded on the side of Texas Creek Road, looking as if they felt like they should do something, anything. Only to have that valiant thought quashed by survival instinct and the need to stay out of the way of the fire. Smoke. Descent into the valley off of Texas Creek, with feelings of uncertainty and fear surrounding us. We are shell-shocked. Numb. Disbelieving. We landed at a friend’s house, located at the bottom of Texas Creek. We watched in disbelief as Texas Creek blew. There were two plumes to the south of us and two more plumes to the north of us. Winds continued to rage. Armageddon looks like this. We await the four horsemen. At approximately 6 p.m. Friday the 18th of July, our house burned, as did the barn, hay shed, maple tree, ash trees, pine trees, crabapple tree, flowers, herbs, lawns, garden, soil. Consumed in its entirety, leaving only concrete and pottery, and very little of that, to be salvaged. Gone. Poof. Headed east, on the winds of the atmosphere. www.MethowValleyNews.com
A call from a frantic neighbor trying to find us confirms what we already knew, but hoped wasn’t true. I overhear the words “I’m so sorry ...” from Robin’s phone. Her face lost its life. We were homeless. Leaving sounded good. We retreated to the open arms of extended family for drinks and dinner, drinks being foremost on our minds. I mean, why not, tomorrow was going to hurt anyway. Our loving friends cloaked us in fine food, numbing pain-relieving refreshments, and love. Resolution is good, change is good also, for the most part, sometimes, if you’re lucky and karma doesn’t have a lien to enforce or contract to fulfill. We watched as flaming glowworms worked over the hillsides we called home. After dinner we drove to the friends who had our horses and donkey. There was this incredible urge to gather family. Our animals are family also. We needed rest. I was exhausted, wired and now slightly drunk. The drive up the valley that night was something out of Hellboy. Hillsides aflame from Carlton to Twisp, glowing skyline all the way to the Columbia River. Flame fronts, like snakes wriggling across the hillsides. The only light in the night is provided by the fire. Even the stars have left the valley, just like AT&T.
We arrived at the friends who had our horses. For every major event in our lives, dramatic, traumatic or otherwise, there is a morning after. I awoke into a strange bedroom, smelling of smoke and sweat, knowing we were homeless. It’s an emptiness I can’t quite describe. We went in search of breakfast in Twisp and found it in front of the Cinnamon Twisp Bakery. The owner of the bakery had set up a small table and was serving granola, fruit, milk, coffee and tea. We humbly accepted these generous offerings. We needed our strength, for the drive to see what was left of the house. Neither Robin nor I really believed the house was gone at this point. It still didn’t seem real. Twisp was quiet. Even the gas line at Hank’s Mini Market was nonexistent. We drove south to Carlton not really sure of what to expect. As we
The morning after it burned, Robin Baire surveyed the remains of her home. PHOTO COURTESY
MICHAEL “YOGI” MARTIN
turned up Texas Creek we began to comprehend the extent of the destruction. The drainage itself was burned. The part we all thought was too green and wet to burn, burned hard, burned hot. The further up Texas Creek we got the hotter the fire burned. Everywhere we looked there was no vegetation, only lingering smoke. The aspen groves, so green in the spring, now stood as blackened sticks. The pine stands were devoid of green needles. The willow-, dogwood- and cattail-filled drainage was ashy grey, black and dry. I spied a squirrel scampering in the blackened drainage as we drove on. I have no idea how it survived.
The sky was grayish and smokefilled. We were silent, stunned. We felt our hearts sink with every foot of elevation gain. When we finally got to the curve where you can first see our house, there was a hole in the skyline that should be house. The abandoned house below us was a pile of roofing metal, ash and concrete. Our house looked much the same. Power poles had burned off, lines were down across the driveway. There was smoke everywhere. We walked to the smoking, smoldering remains of the house. The yard, so beautiful this last spring, was mineral soil and ash. One small 6-foot-square patch of the upper lawn survived. The maple and
crabapple trees were dead, black, firesharpened sticks. A pile of firewood was nothing but a mineral soil circle. Robin’s beautiful green garden was, withered, black, dead, the greenhouse a misshapen pile of plastic. Buckets of water melted to the water line. More melted glass than you could ever imagine. Literally no wood survived from the house, barn or hay shed. Cast iron — this is hard for me to accept — was melted, cracked, warped, destroyed. I had cast iron that survived the Winthrop Emporium fire of the mid 1990s. Calliope, a robin’s-egg-blue 17-foot Oday Daysailer, was nothing but fiberglass and fire-stained stainless steel. The wind, so violent, had textured the surface of the soil. The dirt bike’s rear fender had burned off, the controls were melted. I found my mountain bike, just an outline of melted aluminum. There was melted aluminum and lingering smoke, everywhere. Robin and I walk to her oldest son’s grave. It’s in the middle of the only unburned patch of sagebrush we have left on the property. A small Buddha gazes over the place from the gravesite, as though he knew, ultimately, it was all OK. I find the last smoldering bit of fire. Although I’m stunned, I find enough anger. I pee on it. I’ll be damned if it’s going to get the rest of it. ❖ Michael Martin lives near Twisp. TRIAL BY FIRE 69
Coming back Don and Pat Owens are rebuilding from the rubble of their Finley Canyon home By Ann McCreary
N the night of July 17, as darkness was settling in, Don Owens stood on a hillside south of Twisp that provided a view of his Finley Canyon home, and watched it explode in flames. “It was magnificent,” Owens said. “It was a huge flame. When you see it actually go up, there’s a feeling of disbelief. It’s one of those helpless feelings, totally beyond your control.” Don and Pat Owens had evacuated their home only a few hours earlier with a few possessions thrown in a travel trailer. They arranged to spend the night with friends and attended the first of many public meetings about the wildfire, held that evening at the Methow Valley Community Center in Twisp. During the meeting the windwhipped wildfire was racing down the valley, consuming dozens of homes in its path and heading toward the Owens’ house, which they built 10 years ago as their retirement home. The next morning, knowing their home was gone, they drove up Finley Canyon, where blackened trees and shrubs still smoldered. The house was a pile of twisted sheets of metal, blackened beams, a stovepipe and concrete steps leading nowhere. Don’s shop and “a lifetime accumulation of tools” were gone. Railroad ties in the raised beds of their garden were still in flames. But inexplicably, among the charred landscape, a 30-foot-high 70 TRIAL BY FIRE
Above: With the charred remains of their retirement house in the background, Pat and Don Owens sit in chairs that inexplicably escaped the fire. Right: The Owenses take a moment to appreciate the irony of a sign near their burned-over home. PHOTOS COURTESY OF PAT AND DON OWENS
wooden windmill built by Don stood unscathed, as well as a couple of wooden Adirondack chairs next to — ironically — a fire pit. Don and Pat sat in the chairs, the charred rubble of their home behind them, and smiled for a photo.
No time left
Don, a retired commercial pilot, had flown his private plane to California on Monday (July 14), just after a storm passed through the valley and touched off several lightning fires. Three days later, fed by high heat A publication of the Methow Valley News
and relentless wind, the fires exploded. Pat called Don in the morning to tell him to come home, and called her daughter in Hood River. “I said, ‘I think this one is going to get us,’” she recalled. Unable to land his plane at the Twisp airport that afternoon because of smoke and flight restrictions due to all the aircraft called in to fight the fire, Don landed at Brewster and found a ride to the valley with someone he’d never met. “Driving up the valley, the hills were filled with individual fires. At one point the fire was blowing over the top of the truck — you could feel the heat,” Don said. Pat had taken her three horses to a neighbor’s house earlier in the day as a precaution, but didn’t feel panicky. She was gathering a few belongings, but not rushing. “I was watering house plants — wasn’t that a nice thing?” She could see smoke billowing into the sky, but it appeared to be some distance away. “I don’t think the fire had jumped Highway 20 yet,” Pat said. At about 3 p.m. a friend, Bob Ulrich, burst into the house and said, “Pat, you don’t have much time.” Jolted into action, she began moving quickly. Don arrived and took photos of the house and shop and their belongings, which proved “invaluable” in filing their insurance claims. Then Pat got a call from her daughter, who had driven from Oregon and was waiting at the entrance to Finley Canyon, where firefighters had stopped traffic from entering. “She said, ‘If you don’t leave now, you’re not going to make it,’” Pat remembers. The couple gathered their computer, some clothes, a file cabinet with
important papers, photo albums and their dog and drove away from their home. “We never knew we wouldn’t come back to it,” Pat said.
Although they lost almost everything in the fire, the Owenses feel fortunate, they said in an interview four months later. Their insurance company quickly settled with them, including paying to rebuild fences, and covering rent for the Owenses and board for their horses until they can rebuild their lives. “We had a lot of options after the fire. We were thinking we had a blank palette,” Pat said. The couple left the valley for a while to stay with Pat’s daughter in Oregon. “We came back because we needed the love and support of this community,” Pat said. “We were in shock for a while, but then you … make your peace with it,” Don said. “It’s like going back 12 years and starting all over. We probably had more energy 12 years ago.” “We needed it, because now we don’t have to deal with grandma’s slides,” joked Pat. The couple has decided to rebuild on their property next spring. Their home’s foundation is sound, and they will create a house much like the one they lost. They expect to incorporate building materials, such as stucco and concrete, and landscaping that is less vulnerable to fire, they said. The morning after the fire, when they returned to the charred remains of their home and saw Don’s windmill still standing, “we felt that was an omen,” Don said. “We still feel at home there. There’s still an attachment,” he said. ❖
Flames race along the ridgeline above Finley Canyon. PHOTO COURTESY PAT AND DON OWENS
The landscape smolders around the Owenses’ home after the fire. PHOTO COURTESY PAT AND DON OWENS
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TRIAL BY FIRE 71
Fire, floods and friends By Ginger Reddington with Don Reddington
The Carlton Complex Fire did not threaten Benson Creek immediately. But by late afternoon of July 17 our world in the Methow Valley changed rapidly. I had hauled our tractor earlier to a friend’s house near the river, just in case. Then I came back and hooked up the horse trailer, just in case. We had not heard if we were on any alerts, but that huge pillar of smoke from the Cougar Flat fire seemed to be moving toward us at a groundpounding pace. We had a dinner date with friends and were just arriving at their home when my cell phone rang. It was our neighbor, saying a sheriff’s deputy had just come by and said we had an hour to get out. Back home we sped. Our daughter’s partner, Corbin, got there just after we did, and helped get the items we wanted to take — mostly family albums, the computer tower, essential business papers and work in progress and promised from my studio. Our neighbors came by and helped throw all the tack in the horse trailer. Don put the horses in and we began the evacuation. I looked back to the house and realized that was probably our last view of our home, so I took a photo. We took the horses to our friend’s home on Studhorse Mountain in Winthrop. We drove on to our daughter’s home in Mazama with one cat, five dogs and one rabbit. Donni and Corbin were very gracious and made room for all. No one slept that short night with the many thoughts of our home 72 TRIAL BY FIRE
Ginger Reddington surveyed damage near her home on Benson Creek Road. The road sustained major damage from flash floods and debris flows. PHOTO BY MARCY STAMPER burning. But at 5:30 a.m., a neighbor sent Donni a text photo of our home with fire moving down behind our barn and outbuildings. After a quick bite, we were headed to Benson Creek to fight fire. Three trucks with crews came into the house behind us and we all went to work. By afternoon, all fire was out and we planned for homecoming the next day (Saturday).
After a better night of relaxation and rest in Mazama, we planned the homecoming. In the morning I left with the truck and horse trailer to pick up the horses. Don, Donni and Corbin headed home to prepare the way. I was almost to Twisp when coming towards me I see Don and the kids flashing their lights and giving the turn-around signal. When I had pulled over they said the fire was raging on Benson Creek and we couldn’t even get up there. Now I was really concerned because of high winds and hot temperatures, but greatly curious as to why the flare-up when all was clear as we left the night before. After dropping the horses in
Mazama in an absent neighbor’s paddock near our daughter’s home, we headed back to Benson Creek to again see if our house was still standing. As we came around the corner, we saw that the house was still standing but the west side of the property, along with barn and outbuildings, was threatened. Pumper trucks joined us and we began the task of saving our farm — again. It took all day, but we stopped it at our pasture. The west side fence burned, as well as the rail fence by the horse area. Thanks again to the firefighters who helped stop this inferno. So cleanup began Sunday, when we came home. We had no power, of course, so did the best we could. We also took time to ride our horses up the two valleys nearest us to see the devastation left by the fire. It truly looked like a war zone, with smoke coming out of burnt tree holes in the ground. The total burning of the vegetation and cabins was so sad. During that ride, I composed a poem for the firefighters. I painted it on a 4-by-4-foot board and put it along the road to thank the firefighters. Many took photos, and we were happy they got to see it. The sign
existed for a month, until the flash floods happened.
Don and I were so thankful. After all our and the firefighters’ efforts, we only lost the west side of our lower-elevation fencing and most of our “up-on-the-mountain” fence. All of our buildings survived, and all the new winter hay we just bought. We were truly blessed. We had no power, so I went to Twisp to buy propane for the barbecue. While I was there Paul Schmekel came over and asked how we survived the fire. I described our adventures. One of the questions he asked was, “did we have a generator?” I said no, it was one of the things we had thought about but never bought. He said follow me down to the church. When we got there, he put a new generator in the back of the truck and said use it as long as you need and then you may purchase or bring it back. It was wonderful, as we ran our fridge, the TV (so we could keep up on the fires) and best of all, the coffee machine so Don could make us lattes. What more could we ask for? We got into a rhythm of cleanup A publication of the Methow Valley News
and living without power. During that time I found one hen I thought we lost in the fire. She had started sitting on a pile of eggs. We needed to rebuild the fence to get the horses back on pasture, so that was the next project. As we began, two friends, Don and Scott, drove in and asked what they could do to help. We told them about the day’s project and, being two born-on-the-farm boys, they got to work. Our daughter and Corbin drove in and we had a fencing crew. What would have taken Don and me two or three days to finish was done by the afternoon.
The rains come
Don and I got back into a semblance of normal life. And then almost one month later and again on a Thursday — Aug. 21 — the rain started. It wasn’t just rain, but violent thunder and lightning every few minutes. It started around 4 p.m. and just kept going. Sheets of rain, and the thunder and lightning, continued for four hours. A dear friend, Theresa, had come to cook us dinner and as she and I were in the kitchen, I looked out and saw a river flowing down our pasture and another around our house. All I could say was “Theresa ... Oh, s***!” We went outside and saw a river of debris filling up the valley. Theresa saw a car tumbling end-over-end in the flood, and my neighbor called and said she couldn’t find her husband. Don saw him in the water, and Theresa and I saw him later walking very slowly to his home. Then I thought of our horses and looked up to the barn where we had just put them up for the night with a good dinner. A wall of water 6 feet high was raging on one side of our four critters and another wall about 2 feet high flowed on their other side. They were trapped and scared. I took off up the road to the barn, grabbed a halter and put it on the boss horse. I threw the gate open and called to them, while leading Whitey out of harm’s way. Denny, Burt and Fred fell in right behind Whitey and we fast-walked down to the lower pasture, which was clear and safe. In they went, and I headed back to the house — the wettest I had been in years. As I got to the door, I looked back to check them and saw the entire valley www.MethowValleyNews.com
was a raging river, except for 2 feet of dry ground where the horses stood. Back I went and moved the horses to the big pasture so they could go to high ground behind our house. The fence was gone on two sides, but I did not expect they would leave. As I started back towards the house I remembered our neighbors’ horses. They had been in their paddocks since the fire and I had been feeding them. They were in direct line of the water coming from the broken dams (we just thought was more flash flood). Over I went through 2 feet of water, and managed to get a gate open and get them up the mountain. Our hunting dogs were barking frantically as I came back from the neighbors’ place. Their kennel was filling with water. Don got there at the same time and we led and carried them to the house kennel. Finally, we made it back to the house. I went back to the barn to check our cats and chickens. The cats were high and dry in their house, the chickens were dry on their roost, but their floor was full of mud. Our winter hay that we had just put in the barn before the fire was dry and safe. I also checked the setting hen to see if she survived. She was right on in her quest to hatch her eggs. She was hunkered down on the eggs but was soaking wet. Looking out, I saw that the sprinklers were still running so I walked through the pasture and turned everything off. There were many firefighters parked on the road in their rigs, waiting to get out. Benson Creek had many debris slides across it and the water was still across the road. I told them to join us at the house if they wanted. The car that had been hit by the flashflood on Benson Creek was upside down in the water. The young man who was in it had been able to get out, and was walking by. I asked if he would like dry clothes. He said he had a change in another truck. Some of the crew asked if we needed help. I said we were OK but please check the older couple up valley from us and make sure they were OK.
of debris and water. We had all done as much as we could and went back inside to wait out the storm. Then visitors began to arrive. A knock at the door brought our neighbors Mike and Valerie, soaking wet but OK. They had been brought across to our side of the flood holding on to a rope. Mike had been hit by the water but stopped himself with his pick ax. He had also been hit by a log and was hurting. Our daughter Donni had called to see how things were and we told her of the flash floods. She assessed Mike over the phone and had him start sitting on an ice bag. The next knock at the door was our neighbor and his son. They had been at their property doing fire cleanup when the mess hit. They, too, were very wet. We had plenty of dry clothes and got everyone comfortable, including hot showers for those that wished. Theresa had gone back to cooking, adding more ingredients for the guests. A glass of wine helped all settle. Another knock on the door brought Darold Brandenburg and his search-and-rescue team. They checked Mike and suggested a doctor visit and more ice. They wanted us to leave but we all shook our heads no; we had made it this far and the house was secure. So they did a head count and left to check on neighbors further up.
The next day was an eye-opener, with fences gone, pasture covered with debris, a new course for Benson Creek and, best of all, a fully running creek through our property.
Oh, how much cleanup we had ahead. Don and I worked all morning to get the fences put back up in the big pasture. Then we were advised to evacuate — again — because they did not know the status of the last and largest lake’s dam. I went back to our place that evening to feed cats and put the chickens up. The creek was still running over the road and made it hard to get up to the house. I four-wheeled in, pulled into the driveway and decided to go park back on the road if the water was rising that fast. We came home the next day and began cleanup in earnest. The hen who so valiantly sat through fire and flood hatched nine chicks. Mother and children are doing well. It is almost the end of October and all our lower fence is back up and running. The pastures are debris-free and Don has harrowed them to perfection. I will reseed them when the snows start and we will rest through the winter and just enjoy this valley and its wonderful skiing. Again, even though this was an adventure most people never get to experience, good stuff has come from it. We have learned we would rather fight fire than flood. We have a fulltime creek that should be with us for a long time. We know better now how to protect our buildings from the mountain flash floods. We still have our home and animals. No one died in the fire or floods. We still have each other. ❖ Ginger and Don Reddington live in Twisp.
And then, visitors
Don and Theresa had been cutting as much trench as possible around the house to divert the steady flow
The Reddingtons expressed their gratitude to firefighters with a poetic tribute. PHOTO COURTESY GINGER REDDINGTON TRIAL BY FIRE 73
Brian Varrelman reacts in anger to the discovery of unburnt ponderosa pines that were needlessly cut down by fire crews weeks after fires rushed through Antoine Creek Canyon. The old growth trees marked the route to the Asbestos Mine, and had miner claims slashed into the bark. “A piece of history destroyed for no reason.” PHOTO BY JOANNA BASTIAN
Standing their ground Brian Varrelman, with help from friends and family, faced down the firestorm at his Alta Lake ranch By Joanna Bastian
74 TRIAL BY FIRE
RIAN Varrelman and ranch hand Jake O’Reilly held their ground between Alta Lake State Park and a row of homes as the fire roared south. On Thursday evening (July 17), the firestorm first devoured homes around Alta Lake Golf Course before sweeping through the state park and toward Whistlin’ Pine Ranch on the southern shore of the lake, where Varrelman was born and raised. That night the two men dug a fire line at the group campsite in Alta Lake State Park and moved their equipment down to the lakeshore, spending the night on the beach.
Varrelman shared his strategy: “My first plan was the group campsite. Plan B was to move back and try to hold it at the rockslide. Plan C was to jump in the lake.” Varrelman recalls that night. “It was scary, intimidating. Sounds of exploding, the fire was a hungry beast — cars, propane tanks, transformers … it was windy up at the golf course, these goblin-like winds taking some houses, leaving others. It was horrible.” At 3 a.m. Friday, the fire reached their first line of defense at the group campsite. With a 350-gallon water truck, Varrelman and O’Reilly fought
back the flames and held the line on the west side of the lake, saving nearly a dozen homes and 70 head of horses. Throughout the day on Friday, the fire continued along the other side of Alta Lake on the east, scorching Arbuckle Mountain and moving south down the canyon towards the meadows and forests of Whistlin’ Pine Ranch. The next day, Saturday, 40-mile-per-hour winds moved the fire through the timber and lush meadows south of the lake and circled back north along the west side of the canyon — trapping Varrelman, O’Reilly and the 70 horses. A publication of the Methow Valley News
Varrelman gathered up friends and neighbors to help suppress hot spots. Michael Zoretic, David Haynes, John Larson, Joel Grase, Rick Trocano and Brian’s son Dillon joined Varrelman and O’Reilly. Nine guys, a backhoe, a water truck and 600 feet of hose stood between the state’s historic wildfire and the homes along the edge of the mountain lake.
That day, a Washington State Department of Natural Resources truck drove up the road and stopped to watch Varrelman shooting water into the still burning trees. After spending a sleepless night fighting fire, Varrelman was relieved to see what he thought was the arrival of help. Two young firemen were in the truck and they asked him what he was doing. He described the method of using a water canon to knock burning embers out of trees back onto the fire to hold the line. Varrelman asked what the men in the truck were doing. They replied that they were, “assessing the advancement of the fire.” Varrelman
asked them for help and they drove away without a word, he said. For 22 days, the neighborhood at the southern edge of Alta Lake was without power and water. Diana Fiola brought generators the day after the fires. Varrelman’s daughter Tara Varrelman drove up from Ellensburg. A friend, Elaine Ferguson, drove down from Canada. Cindy Larson, Kim Haynes, Phoebe Trocano and Gale DePriest all ran the supply line, making trips to and from distant towns for supplies. Sue DePriest relayed messages, as the phone lines were down and the only place to get a cell phone signal was several miles away in Pateros. It took a neighborhood effort to survive with no power, no water, no communication, and smoking hot spots for weeks after the fires. Months later, Varrelman rode out to inspect the far pastures used for fall forage by the horses. He lost trees and fence line, along with a season of tourism business. The state park and golf course bring patrons to the ranch every summer. Varrelman usually sells timber every 20 years to thin out the forest and make it healthy.
That was scheduled to happen in 2017, but with close to 80 percent of the trees burned, there will be no income from timber in the future. “I lost a season of business, but I am grateful and proud of our county commissioners Ray Campbell, Jim DeTro and Sheilah Kennedy — how they addressed the interim and aftermath,” Varrelman said.
In the meadows along the valley floor of Whistlin’ Pine Ranch, Varrelman used to see plenty of deer, sometimes coyotes, bears and every once in a great while a cougar, but he has not seen much wildlife since the fires. In the past, the Pateros fire hall would hold firefighter training every Thursday and sound off the town siren to call the volunteers to training. When the sirens went off, all the coyotes in Antoine Creek Canyon would answer back in unison, their cries and howls echoing off the canyon walls. But since the fires, the coyotes have been quiet. Usually the bunch grass is tall and lush this time of year, waist deep and
Acres of timber and grazing pastures were destroyed on Whistlin’ Pine Ranch along the shores of Alta Lake near Pateros. Owner Brian Varrelman also runs Sawtooth Outfitters. Both businesses lost a season of guided horseback tours, lush pastures that his horses used to graze, and timber dollars. PHOTO BY JOANNA BASTIAN www.MethowValleyNews.com
… it was windy up at the golf course, these goblin-like winds taking some houses, leaving others. It was horrible. — Brian Varrelman full of nutrients. The fires took it all and even though plenty of rain brought new growth back to the valley floor, there is not enough to feed Varrelman’s horses. In a normal year, there is enough grass to feed the herd for a month and a half. Today, there is only enough to feed the horses for two weeks. Varrelman will have to buy hay. At the end of the ranch land, Varrelman surveys a fence line. On either side of a gate, the fence line is still intact. However, the posts holding the gate lie on the ground in blackened stumps, the gate itself lies prone on the ground. He will have to repair the gate before letting the horses feed in these pastures. A steep road cut into the cliff leads to a historical mining site. Years ago, Varrelman found a galvanized metal sign that read “Asbestos Mining Co. 1907.” At the road entrance are two large ponderosa pines lying on the ground, cut off at the base. These trees were used to mark the route to the mine, and had miner claims slashed into the bark. The trees did not appear burnt, but were freshly sawed off at the base. Varrelman explained that in the weeks after the fires, crews came back up into the canyon and were dropping trees. “There was no reason to take these two down. What a waste. A piece of history destroyed for no reason,” he said. ❖ TRIAL BY FIRE 75
Richard Wipple helps his family rebuild on the land they have lived off of for generations. His people lived in a small village along the shores of the Methow as it curves towards Pateros. They were called, “The People at the Bend.” PHOTO BY JOANNA BASTIAN
Staying on the land For Richard Wipple and his family, rebuilding is the only option By Joanna Bastian
NE mile up the Methow Valley from Pateros stands a large teepee, flanked by picnic tables and a grill, overlooking a graceful bend in the Methow River. Richard Wipple lives in the teepee. His home is in Disautel, near Omak 76 TRIAL BY FIRE
on the Colville reservation. Wipple is prepping two house sites for his family members, Louis Miller and Krystal Miller, who lost their homes in the fire on July 17. He offered to do all the work: cleaning up the site and digging trenches so his family can rebuild their homes on this Indian Trust land that has been occupied by his family for generations. This section along the river has been home to Wipple’s extended family for many years. “We’ve lived here for generations,” he said, pointing down-river. “There used to be a small village right over there; they were called the People at the Bend.” He moved his arm in an arc, first pointing to one family cemetery, and then
another. “Our people are buried all over this land,” he said. When the fires erupted, the roads were closed and Wipple was unable to get to his family. “I was devastated. All I could do was cry and pray,” he said. As soon as the road opened up, Wipple arrived with generators and supplies to help his family. Asked if there was ever any discussion of leaving and living elsewhere after the fires, Wipple looked incredulous. “This is our home,” he said. “Our ancestors are buried here. We stay and take care of our own. That is the Indian way. We never sell our land. We hand it down from generation to generation.” Louis Miller was home during
the fires and described watching the flames as they moved south over the hill. A swift wind whirled the fire up and then down onto the electrical pole next to his shop. The pole and shop quickly went up in flames. Miller, along with his family and friends, fought the fires for days afterwards with Mark Miller, a fireman and family member. Mark instructed them where to dig trenches and where to safely wait out the worst of the firestorm. For the Miller family, the most challenging aspect of rebuilding is the permit process, as there is a backlog of permits awaiting approval. ❖ A publication of the Methow Valley News
A group of young volunteers from Waterville, organized by Carlene Anders, assists in the clean up efforts at Rest Awhile Country Market near Pateros. PHOTO COURTESY OF AMY WU
Short season Amy Wu scrambled to salvage business at her Rest Awhile Country Market By Joanna Bastian
T is hard to slow down Amy Wu, owner of the Rest Awhile Country Market at the mouth of the valley, where the Methow River flows into the Columbia. The fires, however, www.MethowValleyNews.com
halted business during the height of the season. “I had a 33 percent loss. There is ash on the fruit; I cannot deliver those to wholesale. But, it is the natural part of being a farmer,” she chuckled and shrugged, “ you can’t get mad.” Amy noted the outpouring of support in the community. “Many people are generous and helpful,” she said. Her worker, Fernando Perez, was living in the cabin behind the orchard. The cabin and his car burned, and someone in the community responded by giving Fernando and his wife an RV to live in, and a generator for power. In all, Amy lost the two worker cabins, a bathroom, utility room, storage shed, tractor and a two-ton
truck. But, she was happy to see that everything she needed to keep the business running for the rest of the season was still intact. The irrigation and fencing lines could wait until next year. She just needed a large generator to keep things watered and keep her fruit stand running. “I felt like some businesses took advantage of the situation,” she said. “I needed a generator to stay open, keep the orchard watered.” She was quoted a price of $1,500 for a generator, and then was sent a bill for $9,000. She was able to talk them down to $6,000, but felt blindsided by the bill after planning for far less. The community has been a big help in cleaning up the debris. Ten kids from Waterville volunteered their weekend to sort all the burned scrap
metal. The effort was organized by Carlene Anders of Pateros. Amy usually travels south for the winter to San Francisco to look for product to sell in the boutique section of the fruit stand, and to attend pastry school and hone her skills as a pastry chef. This year though, she will be heading to Seattle and working to recoup some of her losses from this summer. ❖
Amy Wu and her dog Tasia. PHOTO COURTESY
AMY WU TRIAL BY FIRE 77
Grief, then relief Michael Zoretic found his home and friends unharmed By Joanna Bastian
ICHAEL Zoretic evacuated to the other side of Pateros Lake on July 17. He was certain his home was gone after seeing the destruction at the Alta Lake Golf Course and Alta Lake State Park. Zoretic was able to drive back on Friday morning but before he was able to get home, he had to stop the
car, overcome with emotion and unable to drive further. “I was sitting in grief thinking for certain that Brian [Varrelman] was dead,” Zoretic said. While Zoretic absorbed the overwhelming feeling of loss, Varrelman drove up over the hill and stopped by Zoretic’s car. Varrelman saw Zoretic sitting in his car, hanging his head. “Michael, look at me,” Varrelman said. “Your house is OK.” “I was so relieved and happy to see Brian alive that I cried,” said Zoretic. Varrelman said the look on Zoretic’s face was “priceless.” The next day, Zoretic and his brother David Haynes met Varrelman at Whistlin’ Pines Ranch along with other neighbors and friends. The men worked hard for two days putting out hot spots to stop the fire from coming
back along the west side of the canyon. Zoretic had been training for the ChelanMan Triathlon that was scheduled that Saturday. Instead of swimming, biking and running, he hauled 5-gallon buckets up steep rocky hillsides to dump water on hotspots and put out burning tree stumps. It was hot, hard work. A lawyer in Pateros, Zoretic is usually a dapper dresser. That afternoon he checked on a neighbor after fighting spot fires and was hardly recognizable, covered in black ash and charcoal from head to toe. Citing studies of community vibrancy after a natural disaster, Zoretic voiced a common concern: “We’ve lost a significant tax base for the school. It is good to see people rebuilding.” ❖
We’ve lost a significant tax base for the school. It is good to see people rebuilding. — Michael Zoretic
Sifting for treasure By Betty Wagoner
work party for the Tri-Rivers Snowmobile Club volunteered to clean up the fire rubbish of a home that burned in the Methow Valley Ranch development north of Pateros. The owner requested that our workers look at each shovel of debris to try to find any pieces of his grandmother’s china so that he
ur love, Sending all o pport strength and su d to those affecte Complex by the Carlton
could make a mosaic. We salvaged half a grocery bag of pieces. The work party was also a community service project to salvage any of the burned metal to donate to a homeowner whose home burned in Indian Dan Canyon. Our group worked hard all day but felt good of our accomplishments. My daughter Jill, who lives in the Davenport area, asked me what
78 TRIAL BY FIRE
belongings. I then asked Joanna at Poppie Jo not to sell the Victrola and records. I sent word to Craig and Jenni to see if they would like me to donate it to them. They were very happy and excited to receive them. They said it was just like the one they had lost in the fire. I felt very rewarded. ❖ Betty Wagoner lives in Carlton.
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After working with a tractor to divert water away from the house on the morning after the deluge, Rich Davis’s brother John Davis and his wife, Rondi, and Rich’s son Todd Davis and his wife, Donna (left to right), survey the damage where their driveway enters Highway 153. It is buried in mud. PHOTO BY BRUCE DAVIS
Rained out Richard and Linda Davis escaped the flames, but couldn’t avoid the mudslides By Ann McCreary
AST August, Richard and Linda Davis of Carlton were enjoying a peaceful escape to their rustic cabin on a remote island in southeast Alaska. The vacation was especially welcome because the Davises had endured the fear and stress of the Carlton Complex Fire a few weeks earlier, and had been forced to evacuate their home during the height of
the wildfire. Some of their friends had lost their homes, but the Davis home, on the Methow River just south of Benson Creek, escaped the wildfire and the couple felt very fortunate. On Aug. 22, Linda Davis’s cell phone rang early in the morning. The call was from the couple’s son Todd, who was house-sitting the Davises’ home while they were away.
He told Linda that the day before, thunderstorms had brought heavy rain to the valley and overnight, a deluge of mud and debris had swept down hillsides above the Davises’ home, surrounding the house and inundating outbuildings, pastures and yards. “Should we come home?” Linda asked Todd. He told her he had just seen aerial TRIAL BY FIRE 79
footage showing the devastation to their property on a national NBC broadcast about the extreme flooding and mudslides in the Methow Valley. Their home was the poster child for the latest disaster in the valley. Yes, he said, they should probably come home. The Davises cut their trip short and returned to the valley the next day, where they found their property buried under mud varying from 6 inches to 5 feet deep. Canyon Creek, normally a small stream that ran through a culvert under Highway 153 near the Davis property, grew into a torrent in the rainstorm and raged down the drainage that was burned bare of vegetation when the wildfire swept through a few weeks earlier. The water traveling downhill combined with mud and ash, becoming a thick, powerful mixture that carried burned vegetation, rocks, large trees and enormous boulders on its way to the Methow River. The Davis property lay right in its path. “By the time it got to the house it was a slurry of sooty mud, and a horror to clean up,” Richard said.
The couple found their horse trailer mired in muck 4 feet deep. The mud had surged through a barn where a boat and tools were stored, blowing out the back wall and carrying away objects as large as a refrigerator, an outboard motor and a wood chipper. A freestanding outhouse was carried about 50 feet from its original location. “We lost tons of equipment. A lot went down to the river,” Richard
Davis said. Richard’s brother John, who lives in the Methow Valley, had rushed to the house and managed to divert the mud flowing down the driveway away from the house, so there was no damage to the home or its contents. The mudflow passed through a breezeway and inundated yards and landscaping surrounding the house. Initially the Davises used a power washer to clear the muck away from their home and belongings. As the mix of mud and ash dried, it formed a cement-like substance, and they worked with a backhoe to break it up and haul it away. They found themselves covered in a layer of grimy black ash as they worked. “We’ve put hundreds and hundreds of hours into it, and probably that many more to go,” said Richard. It rained a couple of weeks after they dragged the thick layer of mud and ash off their lawns. They were amazed to see healthy green grass thriving after the rains. “It was a deep green, and popped right up through the ash. It looked like we’d put nitrogen on it,” Richard said. They discovered that their homeowners insurance did not cover their property damage or losses. While state highway crews installed a new culvert at Canyon Creek, the Davises installed a second culvert at their own expense to channel water still flowing along the north side of their property. They have taken out a flood insurance policy, at least for the next year. “We really feel pretty philosophical about it. We are so lucky compared to so many people we know,” Richard said. ❖
The mud flow carried with it large trees and rocks that made cleanup even more difficult. PHOTO BY BRUCE DAVIS 80 TRIAL BY FIRE
Mud lines on the exterior walls of Rich Davis’s artist studio show how deep the flow was before the water subsided. PHOTO BY BRUCE DAVIS
Mud flows through a breezeway at the Davis home. PHOTO BY BRUCE DAVIS A publication of the Methow Valley News
As close as it gets By Vicki Orford
After a thunder and lightning storm went through the area, we noticed smoke in the air, but it was pretty far away and we thought nothing of it. It wasn’t unusual for this time of year.
The radio and local news reports had been talking about a fire or two around in the area, but that still seemed pretty far away (30-60 miles) and we were just aware that the temperature was hot (about 90 to 95 degrees) and it would be horrible to fight a fire in this weather. We watched aerial bombers land in the Columbia River so they could take water to help fight the fire.
The fire seemed closer and the smoke was definitely growing in volume. And reports were that two or more fires had grown together and were getting out of control. Maybe we should see if our neighbors needed help moving stuff in case they got evacuated. So my husband, Ken, went about 7 miles to the north to some friends that had horses, but no trailer to transport them. He loaded their two horses in our horse trailer to bring them back home to our house. This was no easy task, as these horses hadn’t been in a trailer for 12 years. At home, we started filling the water tank truck, the extra water tank, and the sprayer on the back of the fourwheeler, just in case somebody would need the water. We went up Bill Shaw Road and watched fire bombers drop water and retardant on the fire.
10 a.m. The smoke was a lot closer now. Ken decided to go to the gated community above the house and lock all the gates in the open position just in case firefighters needed to get in there. We called our son Joe to see if he could come over if we needed him. We texted Uncle Joe and told him not www.MethowValleyNews.com
to come home yet as there was just too much smoke. 10 a.m. An Okanogan County deputy sheriff came by and said that we were on a Level III evacuation notice. I asked, “What happened to Level I and Level II?” She said the fire was moving too fast and we needed to get out now. We discussed how prepared we thought we were, and how we had hardly any trees or anything to actually fuel the fire. The deputy stated that she could not tell us to stay, as it was her job to tell people to evacuate. I told her I thought we might stay and try. We were on our own, as nobody would be coming back to help or to check on us. Ken and I discussed what the deputy had to say. We decided that we would stay and try and fight the fire. So, Ken took off and started doing a little bit more mowing around the shop and out buildings. I took the water hose and sprinkler and moved it around the outer perimeter. 12:30 p.m. The fire was definitely moving this way. And now we had better think about evacuating our three horses, and the extra two horses. But where to? And we could only fit four horses in our trailer at one time. And then a friend, Scottie Wiltsie, called and wanted to know if we needed any help and she had a horse trailer. She and her daughter Macayla came over to help us load the horses. Our veterinarian, Mike Insenhart, stopped by to see if we needed any help and offered his dad’s place to take them to — at least for a few days until the smoke cleared. So the horses were loaded and while we had some extra help, we put all the handguns and rifles in the trunk of our car. Then we grabbed the wooden box with all the important papers in it, along with the laptop, iPad and their chargers. And we also packed some treasured pictures. Funny what things you think are important. After losing a home to fire 20 years ago, “things” just didn’t matter. I also packed a couple of overnight bags with our clothes, all of our medicine
When the fire headed for Pateros, firefighters left the area they’d been defending near the Orfords’ home to help with evacuations. Not even Pateros’s water towers escaped the flames, leaving the town without potable water for days. PHOTO BY MARCY STAMPER
and what cash we had. We took the five horses over to Mike’s dad’s house, which was right outside of Brewster and then headed back home to see what else we needed to do. 3 p.m. I filled up the three bathtubs and all the sinks with water. I also filled up any water pitchers I could find. Smoke was only a few hills away and moving quite fast. By now the size and speed of the fire was on all the news and people were calling to see if we were OK. 4 p.m. Stood out on the deck and watched the fire approaching. So far, it was staying on the other side of Bill Shaw Road. We could see about four or five fire trucks down on the road. So far, so good. 5 p.m. We made a plan. I took three or four moving blankets out of the shop and put them in one of the bathtubs to soak up water. If the fire
got too hot, or the smoke too thick, then we were to grab the blankets and go out into the middle of the gravel parking area, cover up and let it pass over. Ken said I could leave if I wanted, but he planned on staying. There was no way I was leaving him up here by himself. I was staying. We looked at each other and said when this was all over, we were either going to look really brave or really stupid. 6 p.m. The fire was getting closer. We lost our electricity and phone service. Talked to our daughter Nicole and told her we were going to stay and fight the fire. Assured her that we were as prepared as much as we could be, and about our “plan.” Luckily it was still daylight out and we had filled up everything possible with water. No electricity, no pump, therefore, no water. Ken started up the tanker truck and was going around TRIAL BY FIRE 81
the pump house, shop, house and hay barn trying to wet the ground as much as possible. All of a sudden all of the firefighters below on the road took off and were headed to Pateros. Later we learned that the fire on that side of Bill Shaw Road was moving closer to Pateros and they were evacuating the whole town. We watched the fire gulping up land and vegetation (mostly sagebrush) across the road. We remarked how selective it was as to what would it burn and what it didn’t burn. It seemed to have a mind of its own. Watched the neighbors’ out-building burn. Not sure if their house is still standing because there is just too much smoke in the air. Now we could see where the fire had jumped to this side of the road and was heading straight for us. Ken’s cell phone battery died and now the only communication was my cell phone. A lot of smoke was coming from the Robinsons’ place. Hope their home isn’t burning. Did they get their horses and animals moved? Getting more phone calls from family, friends and neighbors. Were we safe? Can we see the fire? Talked to Nicole and told her to have everybody stop calling here as my cell phone battery wouldn’t last too much longer. 7 p.m. We could feel the heat from the fire. We could actually hear the fire coming. Sounded like a loud rumbling noise. Knew it was only minutes before it would crest the last hill in front of the house. The sky was getting darker and the wind was picking up. Ken was in the tanker-truck making a last effort to wet the ground. I was taking buckets of water from one of the bathtubs and wetting down the front deck. Smoke was starting to get thick. Took a bucket of water
outside and some dishtowels from the kitchen. We could at least cover our faces and try to breathe better. 7:30 p.m. Ken decided it wasn’t safe to drive the truck any more. So he parked it in the gravel and hooked up the garden hose to it. I started spraying down the grass next to the gravel. He drove the four-wheeler (with a tank and sprayer) around and wet what he could. We looked at each other again and said there was still time to get out. It was now or never. We both said we loved each other and we were staying. And now the fire had arrived. 8-11:30 p.m. Fight the fire. Run from the back of the hay barn to the front of the house, to around the other side of the well house. And remember to keep watch on the back side of the shop. Praying that God would not make us go through another home burning. If the shop caught fire, there was no insurance on all the equipment. What about the Civil War papers and stuff from my grandparents that is in the storage area? What if an ember caught our clothes on fire? Check the deck for embers. The wind is blowing from all directions. The heat is drying out the dishtowels before we can even get them tied around our faces. Ken is coughing from all the smoke. What about the dogs? Are they safe in the house? I wish we had help! Did we make the right decision to stay? What if Ken has another stroke? How will we get out? There is fire all around us now. The hill behind the house looks like the night sky with thousands of bright, red stars. The house above us is still standing. Something big is burning down at Jim and Brenda White’s. It’s either their house or their shop,
too much smoke to tell. Looks like Rosemary Darley’s place is burning. Wow! Embers are flying in the hay barn. We don’t want to have to inventory everything for the insurance company again. If one building goes, they all go. The doghouse is burning and the embers are blowing towards the pump-house. Are we scared? Yes! If we can last just a little bit longer — maybe it will be over. Did we make the right decision to stay?
12:30 a.m. We are tired. More like exhausted. For the most part, the fire has passed. Ken is beyond exhausted. He is going to bed. And I’m just too anxious to sleep, so I’ll stay up and make the rounds looking for hot spots. 2:30 a.m. There are headlights in the driveway. Joe and his wife, Christine, and our nephew Zach have made it over from the Seattle area. They had been trying to get here for over four hours. They finally made it up Bill Shaw Road, with fires burning all around them. By then I was too tired to stay up any longer, and they stayed up and watched for hot spots. What a blessing it was to have their help.
We could not believe what we were seeing. Everything had changed. The hills look so bare. The smell of smoke is in the air. But we are safe, and all our buildings survived. We lost our well pump, all our fencing, and grazing land. How did our neighbors fare? Rick Lyon’s outbuildings are gone. Jim and Brenda White’s house, shop, and garage are gone. Rosemary Darley’s house and trailer and barn are gone. Rob and April Robinson’s house
is there, but their hay barn is gone. The only houses left on this side of Buckhorn Mountain are ours and John and Barb Moran’s above us. Everything is so devastated. Should we feel guilty because we still have our home and so many others don’t? Ken’s checking out the well to see what we need to get it going again. He gets a phone call from the Morans (who were evacuated to Chelan) saying that they got a phone call saying their house was now burning. Sure enough, we look up and smoke is coming from the back side of the house. Later it was decided that one of the pillars must have been smoldering. So that day we became the only ones left on the south side of Buckhorn Mountain. We had to replace the pump for the well, and replace the wiring and electrical panel for the pump. Ken’s brother, Rick, brought us a large generator and an electrician to hook it up. Little did we know then that we would be without electricity for three weeks. Since none of the stores around here had any generators left, Joe brought us one from the Seattle area. We also lost all our fencing, and dry land pasture grass. It would be two-and-a-half months before we were able to bring the horses home. Joe and Christine brought his work trailer full of donations for the people that had lost so much. We had a big barbecue for all the neighbors and friends that had lost their homes and buildings to the fire. We sat and compared experiences, shared stories, cried and laughed together as we realized that we were the lucky ones — for we had each other. ❖ Ken and Vicki Orford live near Pateros.
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Larry Riggins and Wayne Umberger worked feverishly throughout the night, and the days after, to save their homes. The cleanup work continues months later. PHOTO BY JOANNA BASTIAN
Three days against the flames Larry Riggins and Wayne Umberger went sleepless to save their homes www.MethowValleyNews.com
By Joanna Bastian
ARRY Riggins lives near Tucker Island, just south of Gold Creek. Of Tucker’s Island, Riggins says “it has the best steelhead holes. But now the river is so full of muck, the fish probably cannot see even with
goggles on.” On July 17, the fires came roaring south across a field — “35-milesper hour, 10-foot-tall flames, right towards the house,” Riggins said. Riggins’ neighbor Wayne Umberger called 911 but was told, “there is no one to help you,” he said. Fire trucks
drove by and Riggins and Umberger tried to flag them down, but no one stopped. Later that night David Rodriguez of the Okanogan County Sheriff’s office arrived and could be heard screaming on his radio to get firefighters down to Highway 153 to help, they recalled. TRIAL BY FIRE 83
These cell phone photos show the fire raging in the area south of Gold Creek . PHOTOS COURTESY L ARRY RIGGINS Riggins and Umberger spent three sleepless days fighting fires. The power went out at 9 p.m. Thursday, and they had no pressure to move water. Riggins resorted to using a tractor and shovel to push dirt and put out the flames. Umberger had a reservoir on the hill above his home that gravity-fed water lines. He and Riggins built sprinklers from old orchard irrigation lines to keep water moving and protect their homes. On the surrounding hills the fire was loud, Riggins said, “like blasting, it was a giant roar.” Ponderosa pine trees exploded like sticks of dynamite. A nearby cabin on a hillside was being used as storage, and the owner had many guns. For three hours, ammunition kept exploding. “There was no way any firefighter could get close to that house, it was too dangerous,” said Umberger. Umberger worked as a firefighter for 32 years. He did all he could to protect his home. In the fire he lost a barn, some horse stables and 20 tons of hay, but the cows and horses were all OK. In the days after the fire he was up every hour of the night putting out hot spots. “It was quite the sight, quite the experience. I wouldn’t want to do it again,” Umberger said. Riggins and Umberger worked hard protecting their own homes, and then put in additional hours wiring houses in the area for generators.
Riggins expressed his gratitude. “They [the conservation district] put in a lot of long hours, not only doing their own desk jobs, but then coming out here and helping people,” he said. During the rainstorms that followed, floods washed down the ravine behind Umberger’s home and destroyed a water system. The flood washed debris over Riggins’ driveway and deposited over a foot of mud, ash and rock into his carport, flooding motorcycles and destroying a stack of lumber. “The whole yard looked as if it were covered in asphalt,” said Riggins. For weeks he had to detour across
the field to get to his house. The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), which had put in the culvert, would not clean it up, Riggins said. He said he was told that WSDOT was not responsible for personal property. Emergency water protection funds are paying for a dike to prevent future flooding. Cook and Bob Clark of Okanogan Conservation District have been very helpful in this respect, Riggins said. Erosion cloth, railroad rock and deer fencing are all being replaced. For the moment, Riggins’ insurance is paying for some of the cleanup efforts.
The fires destroyed a section of deer fencing on Riggins’ property, and then WSDOT cut trees without permission, he said, and dropped the trees on the remaining section of deer fencing. In early November, Riggins, Umberger and John Northcott cleaned up the downed trees along a steep hillside between their homes so they could replace the fencing that kept deer from crossing the road. “There are more deer kills this year. Part of it is the down fence, another is the loss of grazing land in the higher elevations,” said Riggins. “This is a real dangerous stretch of road for deer and vehicle collisions.” ❖
Kirsten Cook from the Okanogan Conservation District was at the Methow Community Center handing out information on resources available for cleanup and bringing people up to speed on the fire situation. 84 TRIAL BY FIRE
John Northcott lends a helping hand in the form of a blowtorch as he and friends clean up downed, burnt trees and restore fence lines after the Carlton Complex Fire of the summer. PHOTO BY JOANNA BASTIAN A publication of the Methow Valley News
38 days in fire season By Shannon Huffman Polson
The first leaving wasn’t hard. I buckle the boys into their car seats, and we drive north on Interstate 5, then leave the interstate. Soon we’re on state highways, then past the wide roads and strip malls. The road narrows, the trees grow taller, the fields wider, and then the view is all jagged peaks of the North Cascades, the impossible green-blue of Diablo Lake deeper now for our commitment to this place. It takes me as long as this, three hours, to feel my body begin to relax. My senses start to take in more, drink deeply, as though I’ve been starving, or gorged, and can just now find relief. We arrive much later than we had planned, having vastly underestimated packing. It is 9:22 p.m., well past bedtime for boys aged 4 and 1, and they’re screaming and Peter is at least an hour away with the moving truck. Once the boys are in bed I step outside to breathe clear air, listen to silence. It’s not that it is utterly pristine; across the valley from our house is the low profile of a vacation lodge, and a Cessna drones in the distance. These things are in almost all of our wildernesses. Still, our 20 acres of forest and meadow on the side of a ridge is bordered by U.S. Forest Service land. Only a mile away is the Lake Chelan-Sawtooth Wilderness. Ponderosa here can be up to 400 years old, the bitterbrush and sage as old as a century. We are new arrivals in more ways than one. How can we be so lucky?
After the boys are in bed we sit on the deck watching the spot of forest fire burning across the valley. A red haze surrounds fire burning like a coal in the darkness. It is an eerie beauty. Despite the heat, I feel a chill, and rub my goose-pimpled arms. We watch, and I feel a spark of doubt in our decision. Not the decision itself, but doubt in knowing what it is we www.MethowValleyNews.com
The view from Wolf Creek Road near Winthrop on the evening of July 18. PHOTO BY JACK KIENAST have done. There are four fires burning from the lightning strikes. Across from us is the Cougar Flat Fire. Crews will put it out tomorrow, we say. The temperatures in the 100s should drop to the 80s in a few days.
All the talk at the coffee shop is about the fire. With the heat and the wind, it’s worse than anyone expected — 7,000 acres and spreading, might double in a day. Peter calls to report that we might lose power, but the enormity hasn’t sunk in. People, mostly tourists, are laughing and looking at maps over scones and paper coffee cups. I keep writing. The coffee shop owner comes out of the back, moving quickly around the shop. His conversation with customers is clipped and direct. It is late morning, but the baristas start to wash up, put things away. I borrow the sense of urgency, pack up my computer. Our relative remoteness strikes me; I drive to the grocery store for bottled water. The parking
lot is packed. Lines at the gas station string out onto the road. All this while I sat with my coffee. At 4 p.m. the power goes out up and down valley. At home we sit outside and watch the smoke clouds along the ridgelines across the valley running east. We have a new visitor on our deck this night, and that visitor is fear, a sense of horror. Smoke glows orange in the darkening sky, and then disappears into the night so only the fire is visible, running along ridgelines as far as we can see. After dark we drive down to the valley floor. Fire crews stand in bunches by trucks lined up in parking lots. The fire’s too active for them to work it; it’s being called a firestorm. One fire fighter says trees are crowning and exploding 400 feet into the air. They have to let it burn.
The town of Pateros burned last night. The fire spread like a storm, burning 4,000 acres a second. We have no power or Internet, and cell
towers and phone lines are down too, so we get spots of news by driving into the valley and setting up a hotspot on the iPad. We check Facebook pages set up for the Carlton Complex and Methow Valley News. The fires have been consolidated now into the Carlton Complex. We are in the middle of this burning and we know less than anyone outside. The fire is moving so fast we see the smoke down the ridgelines but the front has spread far to the east. We drive back roads and find a place to stop, because if we are to live with fear we must go into it. We climb up onto a hill and sit on an erratic and watch the fire burn down one side of a mountain up to what looks like might have been a house. At a place like this, at such a time, what can we do but witness? Fire is endless; it has always burned, it will always burn. At night the fires snake along the ridgelines like a yellow-orange city on the horizon or a massive ski area. We watch from our porch. The smoke is TRIAL BY FIRE 85
traveling with the fire; we watch the beautiful violence unobstructed. The burning, this red, yellow and orange of fire without end, has in it something of the primeval. We sit and watch and are part of the ages of the world, its beauty and its destruction, and feel no small portion of fear. The only thing worse than watching this landscape being consumed is not watching.
We wake up today and head back down to the valley for updates. Power may not be restored for weeks. The valley is under siege. Fire crews and the National Guard have taken over the towns. The fire base is established outside of the elementary school, fire crews’ mountaineering tents lined up like an Army encampment. Trucks sit parked or idling in every parking lot and side road, some laying out hoses. Blackhawks base out of a field we can see from a back road. The sheriff in our town has requested a voluntary evacuation; Twisp is at Level 2. We are in the way. We pack for Seattle, reloading artwork to take back with us. It is hard to leave our house to others. I look around our new home before climbing into the car, and wonder if we will see it again.
We’ve come back to the valley, assuring ourselves and it that our commitment is unwavering, that we are here to stay. Now there are new fires. Yesterday a freak storm ripped through the valley, toppling hundreds of ponderosa, some falling through buildings and cars. People in town are talking about it, how
the sky darkened mid-day, eerie rosy patches showing through. The air moved like a devil, a cylinder of air blasting the earth and whipping a thin and strangely straight band of destruction along the hillside. Two healthy ponderosa fell on our property, splintering from twenty feet above ground and falling the way the wind moved. Next door, several acres away, ponderosa crushed the neighbor’s Land Cruiser. Across the valley and all down the highway, hillsides of ponderosa are bled out, needles faded to sepia tones and trunks blackened against a tawny forest floor. The palette of the valley is changed. There is a fire sky as the sun sets tonight, a conflagration of fire, light and water building cathedrals in the sky, pinks like the Sistine Chapel. The slight smell of smoke textures the loveliness, a reminder that understanding the complexity of this natural world requires work. We have visited here as tourists up until now, loved the wilderness in the way of a high school crush. Moving into wilderness is a deeper, harder love. I read the boys stories, tuck them into their beds. There is risk in our being here. There is risk in our being. Our move to this valley here is a chance to understand a place and its power, that finger-touch of the divine: it must already be a part of them as it is of me. I look back at the sky and think: that touch of God can come with pain.
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A community meeting was held Aug. 4 to discuss the ongoing fires in the Methow Valley. PHOTO BY METHOW VALLEY NEWS our house a home have just arrived in our moving truck. I do not have the history of many of these people in this valley, but I have skin in the game. Inciweb assigns the Little Bridge Creek fire “Incident 4051,” an innocuous sounding number, and name, too. Nothing like “Carlton Complex”, nothing like “firestorm,” but this is the one coming our way, while the mega-fire passed us by.
With the smoke settled into the valleys and the dark sky leading deeper, deeper, the temptation to see the fire’s destruction as cruel whimsy, something the forest and wildernesses are doing to which we are subject, falls away. Over the ridge line now hidden in darkness the forest is burning. On the mountains across the valley we watch two small spots of fire glowing soft and orange.
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Peter remarks as one flares and then settles again. “Must have been a tree crowning, “I said. This is no caprice, no act of will, but wilderness itself. We are not only occupying space but living as a part of everything around us, things seen and unseen, things as they are and things as they will be. I am both larger and smaller than I imagined, terrified and grateful at once. This community and this landscape have pulled me inside of it. I have been subsumed. I watch the small patches of orange, look up in the night sky, and the spark ignites the part of me that is wild, too.
I head back to my office, the most out-of-the-way table I can find on a given day at the local coffee shop, where I run into someone whom I know from a ski workshop last winter, mistaking her at first for the jewelry artist whose blog I’d read. We chat briefly; and she tells me that her home burned, too. At the bookstore another woman tells me they have lost 60 percent of their cattle herd, 90 percent of their grazing land. Dissolved by connection, by community, by compassion, my problems seem very small. These fires are either warning or invitation. We’ve decided, either way, to accept.
The Little Bridge Creek Fire one drainage away from us has blown up. A spotter plane flies over the ridge behind us. Smoke is taking up the sky. It doesn’t look so pretty tonight, a dull mustard gray, partly screening the gibbous moon. The Pearrygin Lake fire across the valley looks the same. The Upper Falls Creek fire to the northwest has grown tenfold in one day. The sun spotlights white and orange fuselages of helicopters, buckets trailing behind.
Last night the windows we’ve left open for air let in smoke and Sam and I both wake up to it. We close the windows, wait out the night. We’re on a first-name basis with the fire team now. Caleb and Cash came up to the house again today, followed by four others and then the fire chief. They asked us to show www.MethowValleyNews.com
The Little Bridge Creek Fire threatened the Methow Valley in early August. Heavy smoke from the fire tinged the sky above Twisp River with an eerie, orange glow. PHOTO BY MARCY STAMPER them where the water came in to the house, the propane and the electricity, and walked around the house with recommendations. The grass we enjoy needs to be cut back a minimum of 15 but ideally 100 feet. We thank them for being there, and they say some people are saying they shouldn’t be, that homeowners should not be made unduly alarmed. The various agencies working this fire each have their own approach, it seems. We’re glad they’ve made their way to our place. “We’re grateful,“ I assure them. “Thank you.”
Smoke continues today. Sam yells when he sees the truck come back up our driveway. “The fire truck is coming!” His voice carries excitement and now expectation. Caleb and Cash pull up to the house in their pistachio green F-550 with white government decals and point out the yellow flags fifty yards back on our property. “We marked the dozer lines,” they explain. “If the fire comes over the ridge, we’ll try to put a break in there.” They don’t say the thing another firefighter told us. “The terrain on that ridge is so steep, if it makes it
over the ridge, there’s really nothing we can do.” We have two neighbors within 100 acres, and both are packing up the things they don’t want to lose. We go through the boxes not yet unpacked; I find the boys’ baby books and boxes, my grandfather’s Bible. Necessities come down to a small backpack when a fire’s at your door. We rent a small U-Haul in Twisp and Peter reloads the boxes we haven’t yet unpacked to take to a neighbor’s barn in Mazama. Now we’ve done all we can do.
Smoke twists from the ridgeline, barely visible through the smog of smoke consuming the valley. A constant overflight from aviation is on the ridgeline behind our house now. Three days of smoke is enough. We pack into the car to head back over the mountains, a planned departure we had hoped to delay. Climbing out of the valley to Washington Pass, I feel a sense of relief as the air clears with distance and altitude. My relief is tempered now. We’ve left before, but now we are leaving home. My earthen coffee cups are on the shelves. Our place is in this valley. We’ll be gone for our
final summer travels for three more weeks, and we hope to return to the place we call home and find the house intact, but there are no guarantees. It’s already required much of us, as all things that matter do, and we haven’t yet found a place for things.
It’s possible it is worse to be gone, to observe carnage at a distance. There is rain in Seattle, and rain in the Methow, rain with thunder and lightning. Now there are worries about flooding, but still preparations for fire continue. We’ve left our home in the hands of those trained to manage these disasters, taking away our small box of what is dear. Nobody makes any guarantees. A fire is a wild thing, and wild things kill, but it is the wildest things that show us best we are alive, and maybe even how to live. Wildness might all show us, even, how to love. We leave with less fear, and nothing like resignation, but whatever small piece of understanding can come from a baptism of fire. We leave more wild. We leave more alive. We will be back. ❖ Shannon Huffman Polson lives outside Winthrop TRIAL BY FIRE 87
Community pitches in to help owners of slide-damaged Carlton home Note: This article is reprinted from the Aug. 27 edition of the Methow Valley News. By Don Nelson
HEN they heard, they came. Several dozen friends and neighbors who responded to word-of-mouth networking swarmed through and around the home of Bob Elk and Janie Lewis on Friday afternoon (Aug. 22) to haul away belongings and shove thick, slimy mud out the back door one shovelful at a time. The volunteers toted out boxes of house wares, furniture, paintings, clothing — anything large or small they could carry — to trucks and trailers parked in the muddy road. A shovel brigade relentlessly hacked away at the gooey mass left behind on the floors after the water receded. Everyone got dirty. Elk and Lewis were evacuating their home at milepost 24 on Highway 153, about two miles north of Carlton, after a 4-feet-deep slurry of mud and water surged through the house on Thursday night (Aug. 21) as they were preparing dinner, driving them out into the drenching storm that caused the mudslide. Highway 153 remains closed to through traffic from Carlton to Twisp because of washouts including one near milepost 27 that wiped out the highway. Elk said he was in the kitchen when he heard a noise from the front of the house. When he investigated, he saw water running under the door. Then what Elk called a “flash flood” blew through the house, more quickly than he could imagine, Elk said. Lewis was out on the deck off the kitchen; they broke the glass out of the door to the deck so Elk could escape. “It happened so fast. You wonder, what do you take,” Elk said Friday afternoon during a break from 88 TRIAL BY FIRE
Bob Elk looks at his shop, separated from his home by a gorge cut by the mudslide. PHOTOS BY DON NELSON salvaging the salvageable from his home. “But we had to think first about our lives.” The water line that the mudslide left was clearly visible inside and outside the house. Anything below it was mud-covered. The volunteers grabbed what they could from elsewhere in the home. The slide also carved a ragged gorge between the house and the couple’s shop, a bit farther north along the road, leaving the shop perched on a precipice. One of their vehicles was pushed through the side of the shop by the mudslide, Elk said. The shattered remains of a house that had been across the road were piled up against the shop. The salvaging continued over the weekend. Elk and Lewis are moving into another house they own near Twisp. ❖
Janie Lewis, right, salvages what she can from her kitchen. A publication of the Methow Valley News
To add insult to injury, Mike’s brother and sister-in-law, Kim and Lenore Maltais, whose home was destroyed in Carlton Complex Fire, also lost a 100-year old storage building when the force of a flooding creek ripped it off its foundation and carried it hundreds of feet downstream. PHOTO BY MARCY STAMPER
Wildfire, up close and too personal By Mike Maltais
Early in the afternoon of Wednesday, July 16, I stood on the campus of Liberty Bell High School south of Winthrop, watching a growing column of smoke from a wildfire that some 29 hours and 15 miles later would consume our home, vehicles, personal possessions and, most tragically of all, three precious pets. For all that, it could have been much worse. I was looking due east toward the foothills above Twisp-Winthrop Eastside Road at an area called Cougar Flat. I was standing among a crowd of firefighters who at that time occupied the principal fire base camp situated temporarily on the school grounds. When I departed the campus at www.MethowValleyNews.com
6:30 p.m. later that day, the smoke cloud had grown to the extent that it filled the viewfinder of my Nikon D100 camera from border to border as I snapped distant photos of the coming conflagration.
The fire flies
Viewed from the TwispWorks campus the following morning, the smoke cloud billowing from the area behind Mill Hill was drifting over my home located 8 miles east on the west slope of the Loup Loup drainage. Knowing my wife, Kathleen, might be concerned over the source of the smoke, I dialed her on my cell phone at about 10 a.m. She answered, and as I was telling her about the smoke when she interrupted: “There’s someone at the door,” she said.
Moments later she was back on the phone. “That was an Okanogan County deputy sheriff,” she said. “He told me we’re under a Level 2 evacuation but because of where our house is located I need to get out now!” I jumped into my pickup and headed home while she rounded up what pets she could — two cats — jumped into the car and drove to the end of our driveway where it joined Highway 20. There she waited for me, with quick access to an escape route, while she discussed the fire threat with one of the fire monitors on site. As other firefighters followed the path of the flames up the west slope of the Frazer Creek drainage, the monitor was optimistic. “Oh, look at that,” he told my wife as he watched
the fire proceed east beyond our property. “It looks like this is your lucky day. It’s blown by you.” He added that he had to be on his way, and bid my wife good luck as he moved to another location. I arrived a short time later. We both returned to our house and began loading personal effects into the back of my pickup. The newsman in me couldn’t resist investigating the progress of the fire that had, by all accounts, passed us by. A drive up the highway and a discussion with a firefighter watching the flames from the roadside persuaded me to abandon further evacuation, shoot some fire photos and keep a 3 p.m. appointment in Twisp. Back at our house I reminded Kathleen of her previous decision to TRIAL BY FIRE 89
accompany me to town. During my absence she had been napping and had changed her mind. “Besides, I’m worried about leaving our animals alone,” she added. It was the constant threat of predators, not fire, that animated her concern. A couple of years earlier I witnessed a favorite Schipperke female caught and carried off by a coyote as I pursued in a vain rescue attempt. “I’ll leave the front door open. They’ll be fine,” I said pressing the point. We lived at the end of a little-used access road where visitors were rare. We seldom, if ever, locked our doors. Sometimes major events turn on minor decisions.
My wife’s reconsideration very likely spared her from being the wildfire’s first casualty. Since she is legally blind and was in a location that had only one vehicle-access route due west down a quarter-mile driveway, her chances of escaping what came mere hours later were all but nonexistent. The drive down Highway 20 was uneventful. A mile west of our driveway we passed a neighbor’s property where a parked lowboy trailer indicated a Caterpillar had recently been unloaded to dig fire line. Pumper crews parked near our home had access to unlimited water supplies from the underground gravity flow irrigation line that served the patchwork of alfalfa fields directly north of our property. Little did we know that just over the northern ridgeline a second wave of fire was making its way toward us. The phone call came through at 4 p.m. “Where are you?” my brother, Kim, shouted into his phone. “I’m in Twisp,” I answered. “Where’s Kathleen?” he asked next, with urgency. “She’s here with me,” I said. “Get back up here,” he said. “You’re about to lose everything!” The fire we didn’t see coming was now threatening everything dear to us. My fuel gauge was on empty. Twisp had just lost electrical power. Cars were already queuing up at Hank’s Mini Market waiting for his emergency generator to come on line and power the gas pumps. In the face of dwindling options I had to “borrow” a car. 90 TRIAL BY FIRE
On our way back up to the Loup, we again passed the lowboy trailer parked in the same spot, only this time the nearby house was a burned-out shell. Not a good sign. As we approached the final straightaway leading to our driveway entry, we came upon a solid wall of flame flanking the north side of the road and a downed, burning tree blocking the highway a few hundred feet from our destination. A safety officer blocked the way in his pickup. From where we were parked, we could see smoke from the the fire that had already jumped the highway and was moving toward our residence. With precious seconds passing, I tried to rationally examine my options. The car could clear the small end of the partially burning tree and I could get to the house ahead of the fire, but likely not back out. Still, I might have time to gather up the pets and in any case could escape over the hill and into the creek bed ahead of the flames. First, however, I would have to convince Kathleen to stay with the safety officer. I was driving a borrowed vehicle; my spouse wouldn’t cooperate; the safety officer advised against the idea. As we made our way back to town to swap vehicles and refuel, more fire was threatening a house at the junction of Upper Beaver Creek road and Highway 20 as a fire engine pulled up to render assistance. In our own vehicle, we again headed back up the Loup but found the road blocked just beyond the Tice Ranch. The fire jumped the highway near the Stokes Ranch and continued to travel toward Finley Canyon. Highway 20 was blocked to access over the Loup Loup summit while crews monitored the fire as it crossed the highway at several points and made its way east down the Chiliwist drainage toward Malott and south toward Finley and beyond that, Benson Creek. While we waited for permission to return to our property, another call came from my brother. “They’re all gone,” he said of our homes. “Yours, mine and Charlie’s [smokejumper and neighbor, Charles McCarthy].”
It was well past dark when we finally convinced an Okanogan County
deputy sheriff to allow us through the blockade and proceed up Highway 20 to the home ranch and the only house that had been saved there. Even though the fire had burned around all sides of it, I knew there was ample greenery from lawns and adjacent alfalfa fields to provide a firebreak for my brother and the fire crews still located there. “If we can get that far we’ll be OK through the night,” I told the deputy. He relented after confirming that the fire had moved well east and south of our property. He copied down my license number and cautioned. “All right you can go, but from here on you’re on your own.” The drive up the scorched stretch of highway was one not easily forgotten. The blackened landscape was alight with every shade of red, yellow and orange. Lines hung from burned telephone poles tilted at odd angles bordering the blacktop. The unforgettable scene we entered reminded me of a vast stadium where spectators on every side pulled out cell phones or cigarette lighters and flicked them on in recognition of some momentous occasion; flames, embers, sparks glowed on every hand. As we pulled onto and parked on the green sanctuary of lawn fronting the main house, the reality of what we would find at first light began to sink in. This was real. Everything we owned was gone. Life would never be quite the same again. Those feelings were quickly replaced by the grim likelihood that none of our four pets had survived. Morning seemed an eternity away, and I couldn’t wait. With a flashlight from the car trunk, I headed for our home site located on a bench a short hike away. The narrow access road that led from the bank of Frazer Creek and angled up the hillside to the house was flanked by burning and smoldering trees and undergrowth. The corridor of heat left behind by the passing fire remained nearly unbearable. As I crested the hill, I could see the gray chimney of our house standing unnaturally stark and alone amid fingers of flickering light. On closer approach I saw scattered flames still burning inside the gutted concrete footings. The passing fire had lingered long enough at the single-story
log structure to burn very hot and reduce just about everything to ashes. Later I would discover that a favorite 70’s vintage Dodge van parked among other vehicles had mysteriously survived along with a solitary cardboard box in the adjacent garden. I stood there for some time trying to take in the extent of the devastation. Unless you’ve been through the experience yourself, it’s hard to put into words. The pets, of course, were nowhere to be found. Back at our vehicle, I told Kathleen what I had witnessed. We waited until morning and returned to Twisp where I made arrangements for temporary living quarters and contacted my insurance company. Later that day, as we attempted to return to our property, all access routes were again blocked as crews engaged flames threatening the Tice Ranch. Rather than wait the ordeal out we headed south and eventually to Seattle where we spent the better part of a week sorting out options.
A couple weeks following the fire, we were contacted by Bonnie Clark of Edward Jones in Moses Lake who offered us a 38-foot Coachman fifthwheel trailer. Jason and Kim Ballinger from Kennewick owned the vehicle parked on a site at Twin Lakes and the Ballingers generously agreed to sign the quarters over to us. The couple and some friends even devoted a weekend to making storm repairs to the fifth wheel before turning over title and keys to us. We are still using it. A month after fire consumed our home, floodwaters from heavy rain made access to the property impassable to even a four-wheel drive vehicle. Until new vegetation stabilizes the surrounding slopes more flooding is likely. In the meantime we will rebuild on property we own 40 miles further east. At this writing almost three months down the road, my wife is still unable to talk about her lost pets without tears even though 12 days after our home burned I did find one survivor, the black male rescue cat that I originally acquired at Hank’s Mini Market where he was hanging out as a homeless vagrant two years earlier. ❖ Mike Maltais was sports editor of the Methow Valley News until his recent retirement. A publication of the Methow Valley News
MUSE Fury of fire By Ryan Brennan, July 2014
I gaze at the destruction and ruin of the landscape I can feel the hot breath of smoke beneath my skin Haunted shapes flutter on the edge of the horizon Begging us to join their dance of hell The angry flames burned my friends home away I go on trying to forget those terrible days When all I could do was wait and wonder If I would make it out or maybe die With no electricity the town became eerily still People walked around fear showing in all their faces Fearing for their lives and those around them Some whose homes had burned to ash and smoke Will these people ever recover? If so a long long road Twisting and turning the path unknown To find their way back to a new home Ryan Brennan lives in Twisp.
Night Heat By Shelley L. Block
The night drums beat twisted rhythms as my tangled body gasps at yesterday’s struggle Scenically printed sweat stained sheets have documented this dance of life Orange creek, black river, forsaken moon there is no surrender, no re-entrance, for the grey mass continues to envelope my love Quivers feed my begging anger glowing French embers as I pass bastard Sunday drivers, fluidly waving a finger through my smoke roof
Firestorm By Tamara (Dicus) Hillman
How can this be—in one fell swoop, only memories remain of places I so cherished and would visit once again?
Trees we climbed as children to view the world below are only blackened sticks now not fit for man, nor crow.
Now only devastation, ash, and cinders lie where once I spent my childhood— now smoldering, hot, and dry.
Aspen and great willows, shading swimming hole, are crumbled to the ground now, and it hurts my very soul.
Homes that once were landmarks are now just chimneys tall— statues where those houses stood now bricks and mortar all.
How green my valley once was with flowers on the hills— serene and peaceful respite where I forgot my ills.
A small town—nonexistent, caught by the fiery beast at the end of our dear valley where we’d be headed east.
Open range where cattle could graze the summer thru’ now strewn with bloated carcass’— much more than just a few.
Orchards gone forever, abundance of fruit lost— livelihood of harvest masters who will surely count the cost.
Home of my youth and schooling— the place where I was born resembles now a war zone— tattered, burnt, and torn.
The river with its tree line— colors marking seasons each, boasts now of only scorched rock along its barren beach.
Our children won’t remember what my mind retains so dear for it will take a generation to replenish all, I fear.
Locked in those faded photos, Fields I ran and played in and in the oldster’s eye, are burned beyond belief, the valley will remain pristine and all I feel when viewing as future years pass by. is sorrow, and much grief. Hillman was born in Twisp to Earl and Anne Dicus and grew up in the Methow Valley. She currently lives in Sun City West, Arizona.
Shelley L. Block lives in Twisp www.MethowValleyNews.com
TRIAL BY FIRE 91
Fire Summer By Julie Tate-Libby
It was the summer of fire not one, but many so many you thought the whole valley would burn gone up together like some sort of end-of-the-world rapture.
leaving the place you thought your babies would grow up, bring their first boyfriends, have that wedding with candles and sunflowers and white table cloths. You left when the Shasta daisies were blooming, whole hosts of them glowing like fireflies in the almost-dark. You wanted to kiss them bury your face in them say goodbye to the roses that just opened that morning.
It was the summer of texts and Facebook and pack-your-things-oh-my-god-there’s-no-time get out get out get out. What did we take? You looked around: a brown sweater, a pair of shoes, that skirt you never wore, no, leave that. The dog, of course, the dog. You wouldn’t leave the dog, or the cat but you had to choose.
You drove away without looking back because the fire was ahead of you blazing away like some kind of freak show, the whole mountain lit up and shining trees exploding like bombs. You drove too fast, reckless, crazy the firefighters turned away when they saw you because there was nothing to say.
Time to go. You stumbled to the car, you heard someone crying — it was you — but you didn’t recognize the voice because it was new. Strange, keening sobs as you gunned the engine and pulled away
It felt like the end of the world that summer.
You got drunk on white wine and blueberries, went swimming in the river, you dove down down down. Down there with the fishes grazing your hands on river rock slippery with silt you could forget the image of your friend’s house burning incandescent, like a sunset burning-flesh smell of smoke and scorched earth and burnt-over landscape. For a moment you were just a girl underwater everything beautiful and perfectly still.
Julie Tate-Libby lives near Carlton.
Burnt Edges By Joanna Bastian
Never meant to volunteer Felt the urge to stretch And accidentally touched A fiery sun instead of sky Blistered fingertips, singed lashes Living in beauty Layered in soot I’m burnt Got my life Pinch my body Kept my soul All those memories The dirty little secrets All burnt This is kind of about you And kind of about me We both lost our way Take life as it comes Everything is burnt Joanna Bastian lives on Gold Creek. 92 TRIAL BY FIRE
The Devil’s Got the Big Red Switch By David Asia The fire consumes me. The fire consumes everything, One minute, She stumbles down Through the brown tinder Of Balky Hill, And the next, Enraged by the bellow of winds, She spatters out Her smoldering sons and daughters, Each reaching for the other, Propelled by an incendiary dogma To incinerate Pateros.
Born in the belly of the barometer, She awakened to the rattle of bunch grass, Against the brittle breeze, Awakened to the anxiety Lurking our loudening whispers: Sure is hot, We say. Sure is dry, We say, As clichés could save us. Now, The entire season Has burst into flames And the fierce edge is everywhere, The thin, red lip Of an organism freed From the planet’s molten core, Feeding off acreage. In its wake, A blackened and silent residue.
From a distance, The fire is always something Other than it is And I can sleep In the safety of simile. Closer, I trace a line Through the fine ash on the car, Inhaling, In narrowed breaths, The thick, orange glaze Of burned vegetation And intimate chemicals Of obliterated lives. I watch the windsock And the naïve flutter Of leaves in the Linden, And wonder: How many twists Of erratic, wicking wind Have yet to blow Between me And the end of the world.
David Asia lives in` Twisp. A publication of the Methow Valley News
News from the Methow By Christine M. Kendall
Poem No. 1 Acres of the Methow hillsides & drainages burnt— blackened, some terra cotta striped in red flame retardant dropped to suppress the Cougar Flat & Carlton Complex fires’ sweep across ridge-lines taking everything in its path: pine & fir trees, aspen & cottonwood, sage brush, bitterbrush, wild animals, livestock, bird nests & people’s homes.
Finally, without power in the valley, except when provided by generators, I’d go to bed flashlight in hand – put a bucket of water by the toilet to flush it if needed in the night.
A weekender’s house on a hillside of Wolf Canyon sports an orange-red roof, windows well-coated too, & this blush of retardant provides a rose-tinted look at a changed landscape that was a hellish place when we evacuated at 3:00 am July 17th & still the smoke spires up & up in never ending smoldering spot fires, back burns, and new fires yet to be contained.
Poem No. 8 After the Cougar Flat fire met the Carlton Complex fire, after watching large plumes far too many days the Rising Eagle Fire 8/1/14 was too much— a blown tire on a trailer, rim scraping pavement sparks flying, igniting grasses, a rapid spread of flame taking 36 structures, 10 homes.
Poem No. 4 After being evacuated because of fire and thick smoke, flickering candlelight provided light at a dining table – without electricity it was essential — but also a reminder of what we’d fled even if flames were from tall white tapers. I tried to think of them like candles in Catholic churches I purchased in France, vigil lights for silent prayers— but found it easier not to think of them at all, focused instead on eyes or lips of those sitting across from me— listened intently to their words, ignored reflections of flames on windowpanes or reflection on flames in memories eye.
Tucked into bed I felt safe, sheltered, reading by a small pool of light directed at pages, illuminating words to take me away from flames on hillsides, or speculation on what was saved what might be lost, or endangered, the sight of the fire scorched earth and oppressive flames still dancing at a distance that was still much too close.
The next day wind whipped dust and soot atop a hillside, it looked so remote for a few seconds, then our young trees went sideways, visibility zero, elsewhere, mature trees fell or dropped limbs, power outages resulted and many of us joked, “We’re waiting for the locusts.” Now there’s the Bridge Creek Fire, people’s lives on standby waiting, watching, praying, and yes, making jokes, what else can we do? Poem No. 16 If we could export our smoke as we do our apples and other home made, home grown products we’d have a bumper crop to package up for smoked salmon, pastrami, Gruyère cheese, beer, ribs and other foods.
We’d have smoke for smokescreens for the military, movie industry, politicians, crooks and anyone in need of one, anyone at all. Beware however, the acrid smell of smoke, it stings the eyes, just as seeing damage done by fires brings tears and sadness, and oh yes, if we could export our sadness we’d have much to send away. But we are also rich in compassion and helpfulness Methow made, and let’s hope our willingness to reach out to others spreads beyond our valley, beyond state lines, just as our fire footprint spread far too large this year. Poem No. 17 Where did the animals flee to when the fires came, what refuge could they take? Where did Ginger Reddington’s two horses go? I want to imagine them grazing somewhere safe. There were Black Angus on the open range trapped up in Finley Canyon, a few who made it out with burnt hooves, but what of the deer, coyote, wolf pack, weasels, marmots, and even rattlesnake up in Pipestone Canyon where the blaze came down hastened by wind devouring grasslands, sage, pine trees and cottonwood. We have yet to hear coyotes at dusk calling from hillside to hillside as they usually do. We will be watchful and listening for signs the Methow is rebounding to what it was before this fire raged.
Christine N. Kendall lives in Twisp.
TRIAL BY FIRE 93
This does not belong to you By Salyna Gracie
Ask yourself As you stand there In the pale grey air Frozen to these four walls Feet turned to stone Decide! What is worth saving?
By Sam Owen between Cougar Flats and Rising Eagle looking south and east and back to south weather vane’s tedious turning predicts which way I’ll drive outta here, cat squawling in the back of the car split decisions on what to take huffing up and down stairs with handmade dulcimer, photos, favorite shirt, and documents listing what’s left behind
Can you will your hands To grab the memories You carry only in your heart Can you pack your boxes full With the laughter that rings in your ears The clouds taunt you Hurry! There is no time left Three red flags declare your fate The defiance of your feet The moan caught in your throat Your hands still empty Salyna Gracie lives in Winthrop.
hulking black clouds split and roil up growing plumes growing fresh fears and feathery ash, at night the hill behind me sparkles like city lights, alone at home split from voices on the phone, email, even snail mail can’t get through, no way to say we’re ok, split from a firefighter pulling hose line flames splitting around him Sam Owen lives in Winthrop.
Under a Red Sun By Buddy Thomas
Trudging up this hillside, don’t want to be late Tryin’ to stop this monster, by scraping out a fire break Gray smoke fouls my lungs, come on, make it through another day With all this loss around me, lookin’ for a hopeful light ray Living under a red sun, feel danger in the air Living under a red sun, worried people everywhere An acrid smell this morning, tells many homes consumed Normal seems so far removed, wonder when it will resume I wander a desolate landscape, pick up a singed white page It’s Dante’s “Purgatorio,” exposed on my living stage Living under a red sun, feel danger in the air Living under a red sun, worried people everywhere Pagans chant in rhythm, grasping for mercy and hope Prepare the virgin sacrifice, an ancient way to cope Living under a red sun, the moon seems just the same Living under a red sun, it’s all a jaded game In the eventide dark, sitting on the porch steps A deer trots cross my vision, not sure what it meant Heaving winds descend us, tearing trees from their roots Torrential rain befalls us, mudflow fills my boots Living under a red sun, feel danger in the air Living under a red sun, worried people everywhere Slaving under a red sun, scorched earth on the ground I’m crying under a red sun, ashes falling all around
PHOTO BY STEVE MITCHELL
Change By Janet Verkuyl
The sun came up this morning; a sky cornflower blue. Folks drank coffee; began their usual day.
The sun came up this morning. We stand here trembling, for the life we knew.
Called to meet a change. The fire came. And How? Burning the Valley green to black; The fire came. homes and animals. Janet Verkuyl lives in Winthrop. 94 TRIAL BY FIRE
it back back down. I had not owned a This song was performed by Sky copy of the book. Kyss at the TwispWorks Phoenix The pagans chanting in rhythm I Festival. Inspiration came after days overheard at the TwispWorks’ camof smoke altering the sun to a deep red color. The first verse pertains to a pus. I started joking to people that wildfire fighter doing the grunt work maybe it was time to find a virgin to of making a fire break line. sacrifice for the valley. The second verse starts when I In the last verse, I was sitting on went outside on Thursday, July 17, the porch steps of the place I’ve been the day of the big run for the Carlton staying, as it was turning to darkComplex Fire, the day it came through ness and a deer suddenly trotted my place. I noticed the smoke was dif- in front of me. It seemed like the universe was talking to me, but the ferent and realized it was the smell of homes burning. The second half of the direct meaning was elusive. The verse happened when I returned to verse finishes with reference to the the remains of my house the day after. windstorm which tore trees from the The landscape was very harsh and ground and destroyed homes, and the thunderstorm which caused run-off smoldering. There were many small and mudflow which destroyed more white pages lying about, all singed homes. around the edges. I picked up one There was definitely a worried, and it was from Dante’s “Purgatorio,” tense vibe in the air throughout this Purgatory, part of The Divine Comedy. crisis. I whispered, “whoa,” and gently set Buddy Thomas lives in Twisp. A publication of the Methow Valley News
R E A D E R S’
GALLERY Cindy Quisenberry remembers hearing a loud “Crack, Boom!” about 12:30 p.m. Monday, July 14 at her home near where the Golden Hike fire started. At 1:05 p.m., she took the photo to the left. At 2:01 p.m. that day, retardant was dropped on the fire (above). Upper right photo was taken July 15 of firefighters staging in a hay field near her home. On July 15, about 11 p.m., she took the photo, right, of the nearby Stokes Road fire. PHOTOS BY
Photo left shows a house burning on the ridgeline. Above, DC-10 plane T-911 from 10 Tanker drops retardant ahead of the fire in an attempt to stop its advance. PHOTO BY CRAIG PETERSON www.MethowValleyNews.com
TRIAL BY FIRE 95
Above, an “old-fashioned barn raising” was held Nov. 8 to help Susan Davis of Finley Canyon replace a barn destroyed by the Carlton Complex Fire. Organized by the Back Country Horsemen and the Mazama Community Church, the barn raising drew about 35 volunteers who got most of the structure in place to shelter Davis’ three horses and hay. Upper left photo shows what remains of the old barn in the foreground. Lower left, Pastor Randy Picklesimer from Mazama Community Church and Susan Davis enjoy lunch provided by the Back Country Horsewomen. PHOTOS BY BETTY WAGONER
The view from Gunn Ranch Road on July 17. Winthrop resident Paula Lehr was heading down valley and decided to detour up Gunn Ranch Road to get a closer look at the Cougar Flat Fire as it was kicking up. Lehr had never seen the photos any larger than her phone screen … seeing them full-sized on the computer gave her chills four months later. PHOTO BY PAULA LEHR 96 TRIAL BY FIRE
A publication of the Methow Valley News
Photo, above, shows the Marracci residence (also featured on the cover). Cover photo was taken at 9:11 p.m. on July 16 from Balky Hill Road, looking towards Upper Beaver Creek. This photo was taken about an hour later at 10:15 p.m. PHOTO BY JACK KIENAST
Photo, left, is the plume from the Little Bridge Creek Fire which threatened residents on Twisp River Road and in the Pine Forest area. Right, the sun sets over the Little Bridge Creek Fire. PHOTOS BY SHERRY MALOTTE www.MethowValleyNews.com
TRIAL BY FIRE 97
Directory of Advertisers Architects Johnston Architects.................2 Artists/Artisans Bruce Morrison Carving .....71 Contractors A & J Electric .............................98 Triple T Roofing ......................65 Cafés/Dining/Espresso East 20 Pizza ...........................86 Lone Pine Fruit & Espresso ............................78 Mazama Country Inn ..........66 Communications CenturyLink ..............................34 Education Methow Valley Community School ...........71 Wenatchee Valley College .....................................98 Electric Companies Okanogan County Electric Co-op ......................31 Financial/Accounting Edward Jones, Sandra Rasmussen .........57 J. Bart Bradshaw, CPA............2 Forestry Consultants Patrick J. Fitzgerald ..............98
Galleries Confluence Gallery & Art Center ...........................31 Groceries Hank’s Harvest Foods ....... 99 Health/Medical Three Rivers Hospital.........62 Local Goods & Produce Aspen Grove .............................65 Lone Pine Fruit & Espresso ............................78 Lodging Bunk House Inn ......................62 Central Reservations.............2 Mazama Country Inn ..........66 Twisp River Suites .................11 Museums Shafer Historical Museum ..................................98 Organizations Methow Conservancy........66 Shafer Historical Museum ..................................98 Radio KTRT 97.5 FM .........................82 Real Estate Blue Sky Real Estate.............11
Real Estate, Cont. Coldwell Banker Winthrop Realty ................ 99 Windermere Real Estate..............................98
THANK YOU, VOLUNTEER FIREFIGHTERS For years of service to your community The Twisp Fire July 25,1924 – “It was so hot, and the ﬁre was on both sides of the street, the ﬁre hoses that were dragged out into the middle of the street just burned like paper.” The wind was pushed by a light breeze. Twentythree buildings burned in an hour and a half.
Photo by Sally Ranzau
Recreation/Activities North Cascades Mountain Guides ...............26
Shafer Historical Museum – Winthrop WA
Recycling Methow Recycles .................57
Patrick J. Fitzgerald
Restoration/Landscaping Services Eastern Green Hydroseeding ......................82 Great Basin Seed ................100 Methow Natives.....................78 Plantas East..............................38 Retail Aspen Grove .............................65 Hank’s Harvest Foods ....... 99 Lone Pine Fruit & Espresso ............................78 Purple Sage Gallery ................2 The Outdoorsman .................86 Salons Karen’s Family Salon..........38 Sporting Goods The Outdoorsman ................86
29 years logging the Methow Consultation $20 per hour Tree Work $60 per hour 509-997-2414
Serving the Methow since 1999!
509-997-5420 A & J Enterprises, LLC Carlton, WA JELECJE881BS
98 TRIAL BY FIRE
A publication of the Methow Valley News
FOR SUPPORTING TRIAL BY FIRE
When someone says, "It takes a village…" they're usually referring to child rearing. It also takes a village to survive a fire — or rather, it takes a valley. Only by coming together has the Methow Valley been able to respond to the wave of challenges we faced this summer: fires, floods, storms and community-wide economic and emotional stress. The Methow Valley News has produced Trial By Fire to honor our valley — our village — and our collective experiences with the floods and fires of the past summer. Through the chaos, the true character of our community has come shining through. The staff of the Methow Valley News wants to thank everyone who helped make Trial by Fire possible. Whether you contributed expert information for our reporters, offered your personal story or a batch of photos, or purchased an advertisement, you have added to the rich tapestry that is our collective story of trauma and triumph. More than thanking you for your contributions to this magazine, we want to thank each of you for your loyal readership through the years and your support of our staff and our publication through the events of this summer. We are honored to have the opportunity to continue telling the stories of our Methow Valley home.
Helping Support Our Community Since 1975 997-7711 Hwy 20, Twisp Open Mon - Sat, 7am - 9pm & Sunday, 8am - 8pm
Coldwell Banker Winthrop Realty offers our greatest sympathies to those affected by the tragic events of this past summer. We hope for a quick recovery for all who experienced loss. Our community has persevered in the past and we are confident we will emerge stronger than ever. Out best wishes to all in the New Year. - Dave & Mary Thomsen, Brian Colin, Kathy Goldberg, Carol Johnson, Ina Clark, Kathy Curtiss, Frank Kline, Dean & Sheila Coe, Tamara Szafas & Gail Brennan
| Forbs & Flowers |
after the fire
40 Years experience at your disposal 175 Products to restore your land We are an industry leader in the seed, erosion control and reclamation business. We started in 1974. Our staff is made up of agronomists, wildlife biologists, plant biologists, soil scientists and seed specialists. Our seed selection is as diverse as the needs of the customers we serve. We have created a resource page on our website specifically for Carlton Fire victims. Browse the site and order your seed online or give us a call. Advice is free! We will help you find solutions specific to your goals. You can buy seed in any quantity. Let us help you restore hope and rebuild your investments after the fire!
What we offer you: • Seed adapted to your: Soil type Precipitation Ecosystem Temperature Aspect Goals • 130+ Seed species • Native Seeds • Introduced Seeds • Grasses, Flowers, Shrubs • Custom Mixes • Site Specific Seed Mixes • Free consultation and advise • Fast shipping • In-house inventory
Family owned and operated from the beginning!
Great Basin Seed 450 South 50 East Ephraim, UT 84627 423.283.1411
In the summer of 2014. the Methow Valley was home to the Carlton Complex Fire — the largest wildfire ever to hit Washington state. This publ...
Published on Jan 7, 2015
In the summer of 2014. the Methow Valley was home to the Carlton Complex Fire — the largest wildfire ever to hit Washington state. This publ...