There are now 23 wildfires burning statewide, leaving firefighting resources stretched thin. At least 32 homes have burned, with as many as 43 more destroyed homes or businesses still left to be accounted for. Thousands of people have been evacuated.
CHELAN — Early Monday came the notice to evacuate her home northwest of town, and Jan Ellis faced the question: what should she take with her?
“I looked around and said, ‘what can I not replace?’” said Ellis, a 66-year-old volunteer with the Lake Chelan Food Bank. She gathered up her cat, photographs and a painting of a boat from Maine, where she grew up. “I figured I couldn’t bring my grand piano,” she said.
Ellis and her husband, a hospital worker, know how quickly a wildfire can take everything: They lost their Methow Valley cabin in last year’s Carlton Complex fires. That fire left only a pair of gloves, which had been stuck on a fence post, untouched.
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The Reach, Cagle and Antoine Creek fires — now known as the Chelan Complex — had reached 56,500 acres, or 88 square miles, by Monday, and were still growing. The Wolverine fire has expanded to about 40,000 acres but was 30 percent contained Monday. The Black Canyon fire, west of Pateros, has grown to about 3,500 acres.
The fires had burned at least 32 homes, with as many as 43 more destroyed homes or businesses still left to be accounted for. Thousands of people have been evacuated, and hundreds more homes remain threatened, according to Chelan County Emergency Management and some residents.
At least 400 are still at risk as the Chelan Complex fire threatens houses north of town, according to Rob Allen, deputy commander for the interagency team managing the firefighting. At least 50 are still at risk from the First Creek fire, which is burning west of Chelan, and others south of town also aren’t yet in the clear.
The blazes bring an unsettling sense of déjà vu. Like in last year’s Carlton Complex fires, the fast-moving flames are driven by wind. Pateros, where flames ran into town to torch houses last year, is just 20 miles north of Chelan.
The home where Ellis and her husband live is on well-watered property and should survive, she said. But an adjacent house they bought — they’re working to turn it into a rental property — could be lost.
Stella and Heino Preissler, who moved here from Redmond, were given evacuation notices at their home north of Chelan last year during the fires. And they left again Friday night, sleeping in a nearby field with neighbors because all the access roads had been closed.
“Three hundred and sixty-four days a year, it’s awesome” to live there, Heino said Monday morning.
While they’ve been allowed back to their home, Heino has since been using a five-gallon Home Depot bucket to scoop water from his hot tub and snuff out flare-ups.
Tom Kunkel, a horticulturalist, remembers working up by Pateros after last year’s fires.
“I went up through those areas last year as part of my work,” Kunkel, 55, said. “You saw the devastation.”
The fires this year came to his doorstep.
Listening to the radio updates Friday afternoon, his wife, Paula Kunkel, a 56-year-old school employee, heard their street mentioned. She grabbed the family cat, Skittles, and drove to a parking lot, where she watched the smoke and flames.
The fire consumed their home, but they’re safe and have a place to stay. Paula Kunkel said the community is coming together to help. “We feel very, very fortunate.”
Started by lightning strikes Friday, the Chelan Complex fire was not yet contained Monday. Allen said that should change soon, as firefighters start to build lines around the fire to control it.
“We’re in that transition phase right now where we’re going from structure protection to perimeter control,” he said.
Crews have restored most of the power that had been lost in the region, according to Chelan County Public Utilities District. Only a few hundred business and residential customers were still without power Monday, down from 9,000 on Saturday, according to the district.