Wildfires continued to rage in Central Washington on Sunday, but damper weather and slower winds helped firefighters in their efforts to contain blazes that have charred hundreds of thousands of acres and left people picking up pieces of their lives.
To the relief of firefighters, the forecast calls for continued cooler and damper weather in the next few days
Bob MacGregor, a fire information officer for the multiagency effort working to put out the fires near Leavenworth, said Sunday that rain expected Tuesday and Wednesday should help as long as lightning strikes don’t spark new fires.
“The forecast for the next few days is great for firefighting,” MacGregor said.
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While the weather provided some good news, an updated count of the homes destroyed by the Carlton complex fire is now at 150, up from 100, according to Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers. He said the number could even go higher.
Rogers said there has been one death resulting from the fire.
Rob Koczewski, 67, died Saturday of a heart attack after he and his wife tried to save their Carlton home, Rogers said. Koczewski was a retired U.S. Marine and State Patrol trooper with close ties to local law enforcement, Rogers said.
“Just awesome guy. Do anything for you,” Rogers said, describing Koczewski’s death as a loss to the community.
About 1,400 firefighters were battling the massive, lightning-caused fire, the largest of several in Central Washington, on three fronts. It covered more than 238,000 acres early Sunday, about 23,000 more than Saturday.
“The weather has moderated slightly, and that has benefited some,” said Jim Schwarber, a fire information officer working on the fire. “We’re getting a little offensive rather than just being defensive.”
All of that new acreage is uninhabited wilderness area.
The cooler, more humid conditions helped firefighters on the largely contained Mills Canyon fire, southeast of the Carlton blaze, MacGregor said.
Fire managers are moving some of those firefighters to the Chiwaukum Creek fire, northwest of Leavenworth, Chelan County, which was zero contained. Fourteen more crews, with 46 more engines and 304 more firefighters, were directed to the blaze.
With an objective of keeping the fire west of Highway 2, firefighters were patrolling the blaze to make sure it doesn’t jump the highway and threaten homes on the east side, MacGregor said.
Another large blaze, the Watermelon Hill fire about seven miles southwest of Cheney, Spokane County, was being fought by 280 firefighters near Fishtrap Lake, The Spokesman-Review newspaper in Spokane reported. According to the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office, the fire was started by three people shooting exploding targets, the newspaper reported.
Some parts of the advancing Carlton wildfire also may be slowing down. Rogers said the smoke from the fires, which filled the skies, has begun to dissipate.
“Today is the first day I’ve seen blue skies” since the fires began, he said Sunday.
Nevertheless, the Carlton fire picked up on its north side closer to Winthrop.
Winds were erratic and blowing the fire in different directions, but the blaze was burning in a sparsely populated area, with homes scattered throughout the woods and along Highway 20.
The fire didn’t claim any more homes overnight, Rogers said, and there haven’t been any new evacuation orders since Saturday.
Many of the homes and businesses in Pateros, Twisp, Winthrop and Carlton lost power, and most of those Okanogan County communities also have spotty telephone service. Along with destroying homes, the fire has killed cattle.
Parts of Highways 2 and 20 remained closed Sunday.
Firefighter loses home
Among the victims was Justin Crump, who couldn’t get to his own house fire.
On Thursday night, Crump, a 25-year-old volunteer firefighter, was battling the wildfire blazing through his hometown of Pateros when he heard over the radio that his block was being evacuated. He couldn’t leave his post, and by the time he got back to his house, it had been engulfed in flames and black smoke.
“All the vehicles, house — everything,” he said. “There was nothing. I don’t wish that on anybody.”
Crump’s daughter and wife — who is due to give birth next month — had heard the evacuation order over the scanner, giving them time to leave before the fire arrived. They are now living in tents in the yard of another family member near Winthrop.
“I still can’t believe it’s real,” he said. “I wake up thinking, ‘I’ll get up, make breakfast, be in the house.’ No, just in the tent.”
Crump said he has no idea where he’ll go next. An electrical fire burned his house six years ago and he was able to rebuild, but this time nothing is salvageable. Friends and family have been generous with donations, he said, but it’s still hard to fathom the damage.
Until he figures out his next move, he plans to stay in the tents with his family:
“My wife’s mentioned to me about going back to work. How do I go back and work a 10-hour shift and think about them being where they are right now? I don’t think I can do it.”
At least four other emergency responders in the area lost homes in the fire. A jailer and a dispatcher for Okanogan County each lost their houses, according to Rogers. Two State Patrol employees lost homes too, according to Trooper Darren Wright.
Four families on the Colville Indian Reservation were displaced by the fire, according to Chris McCuen, emergency-management coordinator for the tribe.
The reservation itself endured 11 fires from lightning strikes, according to Kathy Moses, the tribe’s public information officer. Nearly 400 acres of reservation land burned, Moses said.
Waiting for word
During a meeting with the tribe, Gov. Jay Inslee, who visited burned areas yesterday, said it would be a few days before officials learn whether the federal government will grant emergency status because of the fires.
Inslee also said it would be “days or weeks” before damage estimates are complete.
“We don’t know yet what the long-term support network will look like,” he said.
In Omak, a town of about 4,800 people 40 miles north of Pateros, emergency workers and others helped people displaced by the wildfire’s northern stretch.
Fifty-nine people stayed overnight Friday at the Red Cross shelter in Omak, according to shelter manager Chuck Boehme.
By Sunday night, that number had dropped to one, but Boehme said the shelter was still helping people who found themselves in a tough spot. “We’ve had a couple of people who got released from hospitals, but they can’t go home because of evacuations,” Boehme said.
Kylie Kruse, 19, of Omak, brought a plastic bag of clothes to a community center to donate to victims.
“Little kids’ clothes,” Kruse said. “Girls’ outfits, mostly.”
Out on Chiliwist Road, a winding drive through the hills west of Malott, residents began trickling back to assess a section of destroyed homes that hadn’t been counted in the official numbers before Sunday.
John Johnson, 60, stood in the basement where his one-story house used to be. He showed off a melted-over tangle of metal that had been a refrigerator, and a frame with dangling wires that used to be a piano.
Johnson, who says he never got an evacuation notice, saw the fire come up over a nearby hill. He grabbed some clothes, his handguns and some family photos and drove out with the flames right behind him.
“And that was it,” he said.
Sue Gessel only had time to grab her Bible and a few family photos before she had to evacuate her Pateros home Thursday night. When she returned the next day, after the fire had blazed through the area, she found only three of about 25 homes still standing on her block.
Gessel’s was not one of them. “I got to my house and it’s just twisted metal and ash,” she said. “It’s just gone.”
Outpouring of help
But Sunday, many of those displaced residents found hope in the generosity of their neighbors. Gessel was among dozens who gathered at Pateros High School, where volunteers from the community came in big numbers to help those affected by the fire find food and other resources.
Donations came in by the truckload, covering almost every inch of the gym floor with everything from bottled water to deodorant, bug spray, windshield-wiper fluid and diapers. Volunteers said donations were coming in faster than people could come pick them up.
In addition to handling the supplies in the gym, other volunteers cooked food on grills set up on the sidewalk.
“It’s a disaster in one sense,” Gessel said, “but it’s a blessing in another sense.”
Hugo Martinez, who came to the high school Sunday afternoon to pick up supplies for his newborn baby, was staying at his mother-in-law’s house in Pateros on Thursday when the blaze came through and destroyed it. He was moving to an apartment in Brewster at the time, but most of his belongings were still at the Pateros house and were burned in the fire. The 21-year-old said seeing all the donations and help from his fellow community members “brings hope back.”
“It’s not impossible to regain what’s lost,” he said.
Cathy Mendoza also lost almost everything in the fire.
Mendoza came up from Fresno, Calif., a month ago to spend the summer working at an orchard in Brewster, where she was staying in cabins with about 45 other seasonal workers, she said. The blaze destroyed several of the cabins, and she’s now staying with her fellow orchard workers in tents.
“Eighty-percent of the people staying there lost everything,” she said.
Tracy Miller, who helped organize the donation center, said former residents have showed up in U-Haul trucks full of donations this weekend, and even people who lost their houses were volunteering to help others.
“They’re not devastated,” she said. “They’re not beat at all. It just makes us want to fight harder.”
Staff reporters Joe O’Sullivan and Andy Mannix, at fire scenes, and Jay Greene and Steve Miletich, in Seattle, contributed to this story.