The city of Chelan remained without power Saturday, and more than 1,600 people have been evacuated as fires burned around the southern end of Lake Chelan and spread into Douglas County. At least 50 structures have already burned, according to officials.
CHELAN, Chelan County — It was an odd sight, seeing tourists playing in the lake, strolling around, while a short drive away, people’s homes had burned to the ground.
Along Antoine Creek Road, the three daughters of an elderly couple, Emmit and Bonnie Aston, were dealing with the family home of 42 years turning into a pile of rubble and ash.
They showed a photo of their dad taken this summer. He was relaxing in front of the rambler that sat on 53 acres, lush greenery all around. Happy times.
“This was our childhood home. We had it all,” said Laura Ruess, of Maple Valley, who by chance had been visiting here. “Two horses, two dogs, we raised goats, sheep.”
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This summer has brought another crippling firestorm to Central Washington, with homes destroyed, residents on the run and massive power outages as three fires merged. So far, no injuries are reported.
More than 1,600 people had been evacuated in the Chelan area. The Reach fire Saturday was threatening hundreds of homes, and Dave Helvey of the Chelan County Sheriff’s Office said 50 to 75 structures had burned, but “It could end up being substantially higher.”
At its longest point Saturday, the Reach fire — actually a complex of fires — stretched 15 miles. Emergency responders were so busy, Helvey said no one could get out and take an accurate accounting of all of the destruction.
Fire ate through power lines and poles — leaving thousands in the dark — as it continued to wrap around Lake Chelan’s southern end and spread into Douglas County.
Fire crews and emergency workers are being pushed to the limit — with major fires in Chelan, Okanogan, Ferry and Yakima counties. And Washington finds itself competing with other states also doing battle this summer.
“There’s just a real strain on all the resources we have right now,” Rob Allen, the deputy incident commander, said at a Saturday briefing, citing fires burning in Oregon, Northern California, Idaho, Nevada and Colorado.
Allen said help had been tapped from the East Coast, Alaska, the military and Canada, and that it might be sought from as far away as Australia and New Zealand.
Competition for resources is “extremely tight,” Allen said.
“There are no more shower units, there are no more catering units,” he said. “A lot of the stuff that we rely on to come in and give us a hand is being used.”
The Reach complex of fires is made up of the Reach, Antoine and Cagle fires, with the First Creek fire burning northwest of Chelan.
The Reach fire started as five small lightning fires that grew together on Chelan Butte and raced northwest along the southern edge of Chelan. A strong wind changed Friday afternoon, sending the fire east into south Chelan and across the Columbia River into Douglas County.
The Cagle fire had been on Deer Mountain two miles north of Chelan, and by Saturday afternoon, like the Reach fire, it had jumped across the Columbia River.
After Friday’s aggressive southwesterly winds pushed the three fires together, and then Saturday’s breezy conditions, Sunday’s forecast of light winds could be a blessing, said fire information officer Bill Queen.
“Lighter winds will help with the fire not moving around,” he said. On the flip slide, Queen added, if smoke stays close to the ground, aircrews can’t see the fires they’re trying to suppress.
“That doesn’t allow you to use your aerial resources as soon or extensively as you would like,” he said.
Shock and losses
Emmit and Bonnie Aston, 79 and 77, respectively, had for years run the local pharmacy, which later became a gift shop.
When grandkids came along, a bunkhouse was built for them at the family home. Traditions continued. Recently, a $100,000 remodel was done. The daughters, talking Saturday about all that’s been lost, believe home insurance will cover them.
A newer tradition was to have family photos, important papers, checkbooks, heirlooms, even grandfather’s Omak High letterman’s sweater packed away for an evacuation.
They had gone through the drill twice before — Level 1, Level 2, Level 3, get out now!
Then it happened. The landline phone stopped working, the sagebrush on nearby hills was aflame, their two horses panicked and couldn’t be caught, so all that could be done was to leave the pasture gates open.
At a neighbor’s, one horse died and another suffered severe burns to the head. On Saturday afternoon, the Aston daughters drove to nearby Brewster, Okanogan County, to fetch the vet to see if he could save the horse.
The parents are now with friends in Chelan. The daughters are figuring things out.
Another one of the sisters, Cindy Aston Coonfield, talked about seeing nothing but black sticks where there used to be greenery.
Her eyes welled up. Gone.
Later Saturday, there was one bit of good news. The horses showed up; they were hanging around the far end of the pasture.
About 20 miles south of Chelan, Terri Raffetto was sitting outside the small hall that is Entiat’s community center. For now, this is her home, set up for disaster relief by the Red Cross.
She escaped with her two dogs at sunrise Friday as the wildfire reached her trailer.
“Completely destroyed,” she said.
“It was like a bomb went off, it was so loud,” she said of the lightning bolt that came down around 5 a.m.
At first the brushfire was a distance away. Then the wind shifted suddenly.
Raffetto, 63, used her hands to indicate about a 10-inch gap — the size of the embers, she explained.
“I heard the sirens, and the sheriff came down running. ‘You gotta leave, you gotta leave!’ ’’
With her fingers, she counted out the number of trailers destroyed around her. “One, two, three, four.”
She went over again what she saw, the black, flying objects.
“It was surreal,” she said. “It was like … it was like I was in a different country.”
Not this house
On Apple Acres Road, outside of town by the airport, sagebrush could be seen on fire just a few feet off the pavement. You could watch those black embers flying across the orange-tinted sky.
Where that road intersected Washington Creek Road, there was the sight of Guadalupe Sanchez gathering up dry weeds with a rake.
She was slowly going behind where the mailboxes were, removing the dry brush.
Her son, Benjamin, was there, as was her husband, who has that same first name.
They live in Chelan, where Guadalupe runs a clothing store and her husband works maintenance at the high school.
They own the rental home where they were clearing brush. The fire had come within yards.
“You can’t just stand there. We need to do something,” said Guadalupe.
Then she carried off a big bundle of sagebrush some distance away, away from her property.
Her home would not be touched, not her home.