PATEROS, Okanogan County — Libby Harrison never thought the Carlton complex wildfire would crest the ridge that rises just outside her home here near Highway 97.
But like the dozens other homes it destroyed nearby, the fire raced down the hillside and devoured the Harrison residence.
“It was absolutely unbelievable,” said Harrison, the mayor of this town of about 665. “If you weren’t here to witness it, you wouldn’t believe what we saw.”
The Carlton complex wildfire in Central Washington, which by Saturday evening had expanded to just over 215,000 acres, or about 336 square miles, is still blazing nearby. But it has left Pateros and nearby Alta Lake as the ground zero of its destruction, having destroyed dozens of homes.
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As residents trickle back into town, Harrison and others must start the process of rebuilding their community. But first, they need to take stock of the damage and sort out how to help displaced residents.
Over in the Methow Valley, fire also is taking a toll. Power is out and no one knows when it will be restored. Evacuation announcements come and go, part of Highway 20 remained closed, and people aren’t sure when they may have to flee.
On Saturday, at least, there was music. At the Winthrop Rhythm and Blues Festival, held just a mile west of town, thousands danced and drank beer to live blues, set to the backdrop of billowing smoke pouring out from the hills. Organizers began letting in locals who had been displaced by the fire for free this weekend, offering them showers, water and food. Concertgoers and some band members have donated thousands of dollars to benefit the victims, said Erika Olsen, one of the event’s organizers.
“It’s a pretty emotional thing that’s happened,” she said.
The massive, wind-whipped wildfire, the largest of several burning in the state, continued to rapidly spread in Okanogan County in Central Washington, despite cooler temperatures. About 500 structures were threatened.
Winds reported at up to 35 mph fanned the fire, which started Monday with a lightning strike.
“I would say there’s zero containment right now,” said Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers, emphasizing the unpredictable nature of spot fires shifting directions throughout the county.
Overall, 80 to 100 homes have been lost and the number could climb to 200, Rogers said. Forty were lost in Pateros and 52 in the nearby community of Alta Lake.
But the damage seen Friday didn’t hit again Saturday and no serious injuries were reported. But there are a lot of dead cattle in the Chiliwist area west of Highway 97, Rogers said.
One house was lost Friday night into Saturday in Malott, home to about 500 people north of Pateros, according to Rogers.
Late Saturday afternoon, a fire south of Pateros threatened to enter Chelan County at Antoine and Washington creeks, where authorities were preparing to urge some residents to evacuate, said Sheriff Brian Burnett.
Elsewhere in Chelan County, the Mills Canyon and Chiwaukum Creek Fires continued to burn, but had dropped from roughly 200,000 acres by midday Friday to about 31,000 acres at midday Saturday.
And in Kittitas County, the nearly 40,000-acre Saddle Mountain fire was still burning late Saturday.
The weather isn’t expected to make the situation dramatically better, with winds decreasing but continuing Sunday and rain unlikely until Wednesday.
Dealing with uncertainty
Harrison, a 39-year-old wedding and event planner, sat Saturday afternoon in Pateros City Hall. A sleepy building usually used for City Council meetings and paying utility bills, its offices are now a mix of resource center and a supply depot. A billboard with announcements is set up outside and the front doors are propped open with cases of bottled water.
Harrison and Kerri Wilson, the town’s clerk and treasurer, sat at a plastic folding table in the council chambers. Stacked bags of pet food, and tables with shampoo and other sundries surrounded them.
They handed out fliers telling displaced residents where they can get supplies (City Hall, Pateros High School) or grab a shower (Brewster High School). They also spread the word about Monday night’s City Council session at 6 p.m. that will double as an informational meeting to deal with the fire’s aftermath.
“We’re trying to figure out what people need,” said Harrison. “We’re not even sure if very many people have even come back.”
Along with the destruction, the water is undrinkable until the power comes back, which Wilson said will take at least two weeks and maybe a month. As Wilson and Harrison speak, the building’s generator, running out of gas, sputters and dies, shutting off the lights.
Up the road in Brewster, semitrailers Saturday continued to crawl into the entrances of the Gebbers Farms complex. The company, which has about 12,000 acres of apple and cherry orchards and employs 600 workers, is still running.
Still at work
“The orchards themselves have really minimal damage,” said Robert Grandy, director of food safety for the company. “They’re irrigated, there’s just not a lot to burn.”
But Gebbers Farms hasn’t been immune to the fire’s damage. At least eight employees have lost homes, Grandy said. The power loss in Pateros is forcing the company to transfer apples it was storing there to facilities that are still operational, he added.
Some in the area did whatever they could to keep power-starved communities running. Sara Bennett, owner of Ulrich’s Valley Pharmacy in Twisp, about 30 miles north of Pateros, worked out of a Starbucks in Chelan. She needed wireless Internet, she said, to make drug orders for the pharmacy.
“We were told Thursday morning that we were going to lose power and when we did we were going to lose it for a long time,” said Bennett.
Don Nelson, editor of the Methow Valley News, traveled to Seattle on Friday to pick up a generator so he could still publish the paper this week, he said.
Nelson said at least one writer for the newspaper lost his house to fire.
“Everybody knows somebody who’s affected at this point,” he said.
Nelson said he’s seen fires in the region before, but never like this. “The difference this time is the impact on humans has been much more profound,” he said.
Festival gives refuge
Others continued with their regular lives and paid the fire little mind. Highway 153 between Chelan and the Methow Valley stretches for miles through smoke and scorched hillside, with telephone poles burned down on the side of the road and fires still blazing over the peaks.
But just beyond the ominous stretch of road Saturday morning, Twisp didn’t look much like a region under evacuation order. Despite the plumes of smoke in the distance, many people went about their normal Saturday morning routines, mowing their lawns, riding bicycles and going to a small farmers market on the side of the road.
Longtime Twisp resident Steve Cheeks said he didn’t even know there was a Level 2 evacuation order, but it didn’t make any difference to him, as he had no plans to leave.
“There’s not enough fire material, in my opinion, to support it jumping the valley,” said Cheeks, who still planned to go to his job as a dishwasher in town Saturday night.
In Winthrop, residents lined up at gas stations to fill up, worried fuel would soon run out. Others loaded up on canned food, water and evaporated milk — as well as beer and cigarettes — from the Evergreen IGA, which operated on a generator.
Employee Patty Espaloargas has been commuting to work at the market from Carlton, which is also under an evacuation order, and plans to keep showing up for work as long as the market stays open. She knows many are concerned about the fire, but she has so far kept a positive attitude.
“I have a good feeling about it,” she said.
At the music festival, among those taking refuge was Rick Hale, working as a volunteer.
On Thursday, Hale got a call from his neighbor in Loup Loup telling him to get out of the house. He looked out his window to see a wall of flames closing in, he said, and jumped into his truck and hit the gas.
“I came around the corner, and all I saw was fire,” said Hale, “and I just nailed it.”
Hale, 54, was in high spirits Saturday. He’s worked at the festival for years, he said, and considers the staff “like a big family.” He set up a tent on the festival grounds, where he plans to stay the weekend. Then he’s going to camp at the local KOA for a few days until a house he’s in the process of buying is ready.
“I’ve started my life over before,” he said. “I just didn’t think I was going to have to do it again at this age.”
Staff reporters Coral Garnick, Steve Miletich and Carol M. Ostrom and The Associated Press contributed to this report.