After Washington's wildfires: Reports from the road
CHELAN – From the mouths of babes…
Lacey Lybecker, who with her husband owns Chelan’s Cairdeas Winery, clearly recalls the morning the fire started. Around 5 in the morning of Friday, Aug. 14, their 3-year-old, Eugene, came and snuggled into bed with his parents a few minutes before the big storm hit.
Then came what one local describes as “the longest, loudest clap of thunder I ever heard in my life.”
“Uh, oh, that’s no good,” proclaimed little Eugene.
No truer words were ever spoken, as far as this Central Washington lakefront resort was concerned.
Lightning had struck drought-crisped trees atop 3,835-foot Chelan Butte, which crouches like a cougar behind the town – a really big cougar that has already pounced and is playing with its prey before getting down to chewing. The butte separates the 51-mile-long lake, and the town, from the Columbia River.
Usually, this time of year, the butte’s dry grasses make it the same tawny color as a cougar. Now, as you look up from Woodin Avenue, Chelan’s main drag lined with little cafes, boutiques, a natural foods market and more, one sprawling, blackened hillside stretches from lake to river. Wildfires spreading from the butte and elsewhere on the lake crippled this community with days of panic, sirens, choking smoke, and power outages.
And unlike fires in the Methow Valley, this one came right into the industrial quarter of town, destroying a multimillion-dollar fruit-packing plant – a building with concrete walls — a small winery and other businesses in the south end. Up to 75 homes burned, including many treasured lakefront retreats near Lake Chelan State Park.
Lybecker, who also works for the Lake Chelan Chamber of Commerce, won’t forget that day. “That morning we could see a little fire on top of the butte, but by 1 or 2 in the afternoon, the winds picked up and fire just came barreling down the hill.”
As I drove into town six weeks later, there was plenty of evidence right along Highway 97A, the main artery in and out of Chelan. Metal guard rails edging the highway scrape the ground where their wooden supports burned away. Bright new wooden power poles, not yet weathered to gray, bear evidence of recent replacement.
Fire came down Chelan Butte right behind homes on the western edge of Chelan’s residential district, and just beyond the fences of Slidewaters water park. It’s evident that much of this town — where generations of Washingtonians have come to play in the sun, celebrate family reunions, honeymoon with their new spouses – could have gone up in smoke.
Vigilant firefighters and the quick deployment of planes and helicopters dumping water and fire retardant get a lot of the credit for stopping that. And maybe a lucky wind shift.
Karen Wade, co-owner of Fielding Hills Winery, which opened in summer 2014 on the southwest shore of Lake Chelan, said winery visitors spent the day watching the firefight, clearly viewed from her front veranda.
“The helicopters were doing dips in the lake, and the planes were scooping up water every 4½ minutes, again and again. It was kind of morbid, but people sat here and it was fascinating.”
Then a big jet, flying out of Moses Lake, came to drop fire retardant.
Wade, a former flight attendant for United, said she peered at it in wonder. “I looked and looked — and I know the design, with engines on the tail and on the wings — and I said, ‘Is that a DC-10?’”
With 28 wineries around Lake Chelan now, wine tourism is a big part of the economy. Once the fires were out and choking smoke cleared (“I felt like skipping around the winery!” Wade recalls), those winemakers who use grapes from local vineyards had something else to worry about.
“We worried about smoke taint — that rippled through the valley,” said Kevin Brown, who opened his Siren Song winery next door to Fielding Hills this past Fourth of July weekend. His purchase of land for his new Mediterranean-style tasting room included 7 acres of adjacent vineyard, so the local grapes are important to him.
Brown tested his grapes, and winemakers around the lake are sharing research on smoke effects. Most conclude that smoke taint won’t be a big issue, reports Nicole Pietromonaco Campbell, of Lake Chelan Wine Valley, the winery association. She quotes one local winemaker as saying “the smoke you get from the oak (barrels) is more significant.”
The loss of business was “pretty devastating for many people,” says Heather Neff, of Nefarious Cellars, another Fielding Hills neighbor.
“The latter half of August was pretty dead, like someone flipped a switch,” said her husband, Dean Neff. “We had a lot of blue-sky days but nobody was here. Then September rolled around and people started coming back.”
Labor Day weekend, wineries were rocking and rolling with visitors, said Lybecker, adding that visitations to her winery this month are on par with last year. But the town’s visitor center – a fancy, new downtown showcase with interactive exhibits, worth a look – is still getting questions of “can I come? Is it safe?”
The answer is yes – you can come, the air is clear, and most places are safe. State parks reopened weeks ago. The road to the top of Chelan Butte is open again for hang gliders and hikers. While the glider launch site did not burn, much of the landscape looks like burnt toast and signs still warn of fire danger. (Little is left to burn, but trees might fall, and landslides could be an issue after heavy rains. Four-wheel-drive recommended for the steep and sometimes rocky drive to the top.)
The winery that burned, Ventimiglia Cellars, which had a small production facility and tasting room next to the destroyed apple warehouse, hasn’t been forgotten. Chelan’s Vin du Lac Winery has offered winemaker Ron Ventimiglia, who escaped with just two cases of his wine, work space this fall, Campbell said.
An unexpected offshoot of the drama for Karen Wade, of Fielding Hills, was the community bonding. Firefighters on their way to and from the First Creek fire, near Lake Chelan State Park, passed her door every day. Wade decided to raise money at her winery to help feed them.
For more than a week, she joined neighbors and area restaurant owners who pitched in to provide everything from roasted chicken to pulled pork at the Lake Chelan Yacht Club’s clubhouse, near the burn zone, to 140 exhausted firefighters who would come in with blackened faces. The memory of their gratitude brings tears to Wade’s eyes.
“We ended up raising over $12,000. We had a little basket in the winery, and people were writing checks for $100 or $500…One day there was a $1,000 check in there.”
She pondered the memory.
“It was a tragedy, all the people who lost houses and everything, but the connections we made – we now know people here on the south shore we never knew before,” Wade said. “And the last day, we all got our pictures taken with a fire truck.”
IF YOU GO
What’s new around Lake Chelan
- Stormy Mountain Brewing, the first craft brewery in the town of Chelan, planned to open the day the fires started. It finally opened Labor Day weekend. Nine Northwest beers and one cider on tap, including their own Leeward Extra Pale Ale and Slide Ridge Copper Cream. Menu of barbecue, wraps and tacos ($9.50-$13) with six house-made salsas and sauces. 133 E. Woodin Ave.
- Siren Song Wines opened a new tasting room in July at 635 S. Lakeshore Road, Chelan. It serves food and aims to be an event venue.
- Rootwood Cider opened this summer at 45 Wapato Way in Manson, .
- Radiance Winery recently opened a tasting room at 546 Klate Road, Manson.
- Lake Chelan Chamber of Commerce last April opened a new Lake Chelan Visitor Center, 216 E. Woodin Ave., with interactive educational exhibits, a cozy couch in front of a gas fire, and — shoot up a flare — positively ritzy public restrooms.