The wildfire near Goldendale, Klickitat County, has now burned 30 homes and 30 other structures, has consumed more than 4,000 acres and continues to grow.
GOLDENDALE, Klickitat County — For Cyndee Pelletier, her husband and daughter, the order to evacuate came with a knock on the door from emergency officials in the predawn hours Friday.
Even in the darkness, the wildfire burning in south-central Washington refused to lie down, and continued to chew through pine, scrub oak and fir.
“When they came to tell us it was time to leave, we could barely see them — the smoke was so thick,” Pelletier said.
Yet even at that hour, the Pelletiers’ friends came to help, working through the early-morning hours to rescue the family belongings and 25 alpaca.
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The Pelletiers are among some 200 families that by Friday had been chased out of rural homesteads outside of Goldendale by this brutal late-season blaze that ignited Wednesday, and since then has spread unpredictably.
So far, more than 30 homes have been lost to the fire, as well as more than 30 other structures. And dozens of more homes are at risk during the weekend, when the forecast calls for more hot, dry weather.
As of Friday afternoon, the fire had burned through 4,215 acres, and was considered to be 20 percent contained. The threat to homes made it the top-priority blaze in the Pacific Northwest, and fire officials have been calling in equipment and firefighters from all over the region to protect structures.
The fire is burning in a rugged area of forested canyons and hills in an area about seven miles northeast of Goldendale, now enveloped in a Los Angeles-style haze. The community of some 3,400 people is not considered at risk because of its distance from the fire. Some 300 to 500 firefighters helped to fight the fire Friday, and that number was expected to grow to 700 by Saturday.
The cause of what is being called the Monastery Complex Fire, because it’s believed to have started near a monastery, is under investigation.
Compared to some of the area’s major blazes of the past decade, this fire is small in size. But its proximity to so many rural homes, and the extreme fire conditions, has made it one of the most challenging in recent years.
“It’s not getting spectacular fire runs, but it is very difficult to put out and control in areas of steep slopes,” said Collin Robertson, a state fire-behavior analyst.
Rather than moving in a single direction, the blaze has been unpredictable, fire officials say, pushing one direction — and then another — through bone-dry fuels.
Firefighters have carved out wide firebreaks with bulldozers, only to see trees erupt into flame, sending embers that jump ahead and push the fire forward. All this has forced crews into defensive efforts at homesteads to try and save buildings.
“I know the focus is on the houses lost, but there were many, many more that were saved,” said Dave LaFave, commander of State Incident Management Team leading the firefighting effort.
So far, some 200 homes have been vacated, with dozens of people ending up at the Klickitat County fairgrounds outside of Goldendale, which has doubled as an evacuation center and a fire camp for crews.
The fire-command center took over the needlepoint and sewing exhibition center, while the concession area underneath the grandstand was converted into a sleeping area for evacuees.
Pens typically filled with prize animals during the fair season held displaced dogs, and the Pelletiers’ alpacas ended up in a nearby corral.
From all over Klickitat County and beyond, donations of clothes, food and other supplies poured into the fairgrounds, along with volunteers to help the Red Cross.
“Amazing is an overworked word,” said Duane Royer, a Red Cross worker from Vancouver. “But the response has been amazing. We’re almost overwhelmed and have had to turn down some offers.”
The state Department of Natural Resources in recent years has been urging rural homeowners in fire-prone areas to take steps to help protect their dwellings. These include creating a defensible space around their homes by thinning trees and brush, and foregoing cedar-shake roofs in favor of metal or fire-resistant roofing.
Homeowners who took these steps have a better chance of avoiding property loss in this fire, according to Guy Gifford, a state fire-prevention forester.
For firefighters battling this blaze, it has been easier to count the buildings lost than to identify what they were used for. So there has been some confusion over the precise numbers of homes lost.
In a sober meeting early Friday afternoon, fire officials posted a detailed fire map that marked the sites of structures lost to the fire so evacuees could check the status of their homes or outbuildings.
As of Friday afternoon, the Pelletiers’ home was safe, and they made yet another trip back to their homestead to retrieve five dogs.
Myron Nelson, who is building a 3,000-square-foot retirement home 12 miles east of Goldendale, also was hopeful of escaping fire damage.
“If it burns, I will build it again,” Nelson declared. “I love the place.”
At a community meeting Friday evening, hundreds of people filled the bleachers at the Goldendale High School gymnasium to hear a report from fire officials.
LaFave, the incident commander, said that while Thursday had been chaotic, fire crews were able to keep the fire from gaining any new acreage Friday.
Monte Isaacs, a 61-year-old massage therapist, said his house burned down Thursday and firefighters in the vicinity appeared confused and to have out-of-date maps.
“My house is gone,” said Isaacs, who said he had been fighting the fire at his home with a shovel Thursday.
He left for 30 minutes to check on a neighbor, thinking firefighters with equipment in the surrounding area would protect his property. But when he returned, he found flames on both sides of the driveway and no firefighters in sight when it was destroyed.
He told a reporter that he thinks one bucket load of water from a helicopter could have saved his home.
On Friday morning, he returned home to sift through the ruins of the 800-square-foot house he built himself and where he has lived for 20 years.
LaFave acknowledged once again that Thursday had been a difficult day, but said firefighters were doing their best.
“I can accept responsibility,” he said.
Hal Bernton: 206-423-1898 or email@example.com