Well-irrigated Okanogan County fruit orchards served as natural fire breaks, and now it’s time to harvest the apples and pears.

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OMAK, Okanogan County — On a windswept afternoon, a firestorm leapt across the Okanogan River, raced through arid acreage of bitterbrush and grass, and slammed into the orchard of Curt Guelich.

The heat roasted the outer edge of trees, baking Galas, Granny Smiths and Goldens and, in a spot where wooden picking bins were stacked, turned trunks into sad charcoal stumps.

But all summer long, this orchard had been soaking up water that kept the foliage moist and nurtured a heavy crop of juicy fruit. Though the orchard took a significant hit, the vast majority of fruit trees survived as the fire was unable to penetrate deep into this oasis.

All across this county, crews are building mile upon mile of fire lines to try to stop the advance of the largest wildfire complex in state history, vital work that takes time, money and human labor. But as the flames roared last week toward communities, the county’s orchards and other fields of irrigated agriculture growing on swaths of the valley floor played a role in stopping the advance of the burns.

Wildfire coverage

Wildfire growth
Twisp fire

“This thing would have gone on through had we not had green areas to stop it,” said Guelich. “The orchard’s mostly water — a water-reservoir buffer.”

With the fire now past, this and other orchards bear a cornucopia of fruit, and the harvests of apples and pears are once again under way, albeit amid a thick haze of smoke.

“It’s the largest component of agricultural production,” said Peter Goldmark, commissioner of public lands, whose family owns a ranch in the Okanogan area. “The fruit that is starting to come off is the lifeblood of the county.”

At Guelich’s orchard, due to the unusual summer heat that advanced ripening, the harvest began two weeks early and a dozen workers were just ending their shift last Tuesday as fire burned at what appeared to be a safe distance on the other side of the Okanogan River.

But about 3:30 p.m., they found the road back to their camp was blocked. When Guelich peered over a hillside, he could see the fire racing up a hill, past a cemetery and toward his family orchard.

“I could not believe it. I saw the huge bank of flame, and I said ‘Oh no,’ and told my foreman, ‘Let’s hook up the sprayers to the tractors, fill them up with water and go by the house and try to fight it as best we can,’ ” Guelich recalls.

Guelich also got a call offering help that he credits with saving his house. The help came from neighboring orchard Gebbers Farms, where the owner, after a brush with fire last year, was prepared this year with two tanker trucks and a bulldozer.

“We’re no different from anyone else. We’re here to help our community,” said Jon Wyss, government affairs director of Brewster-based Gebbers.

There was no water to spare to wet down the orchard. So Guelich’s trees were on their own to face the full fury of the fire: The dense army of green yielded some ground, but still was able to quell flames that turn pine trees into torches, destroy homes and blacken the rangeland.

Guelich estimates that fire penetrated the orchard some 80 feet deep with intense heat that browned several thousand trees, destroying tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of fruit on about five of 140 acres.

His biggest concern isn’t the damage to this year’s crop, but the loss of trees that would otherwise bear years into the future.

Guelich is hopeful that many can be cut off at the stump and grafted, which will save time in a restoration effort that will take years before the trees are back in production.

“We don’t have insurance on these trees. I wish we did,” Guelich said.

Evidence of fire also could be seen at other orchards, but Wyss said he had traveled all over the county during the past week and had not seen any orchards that were burned all the way through.

“Any time we are lucky enough to have the fire come against a green zone that is well taken care of … that serves as a barrier,” said Todd Pechota, incident commander for the Okanogan fire complex.

One of those orchards nipped by fire last week was a Gebbers fruit farm west of Okanogan. There, flames burned across rocky rangeland but seared only a few cherry trees — well past their harvest season — at a corner of the orchard.

This week, the apple harvest there was in full swing, with a 20-year veteran of the farm, Jose Rodriguez, cranking up a wind machine typically used to ward off frost but now used to try to blow away some of the smoke.

He also carried boxes of filtration masks into the field for any of the pickers who wanted to wear them to protect against both the bad air and the thin coating of ash that settled on some of the leaves.

“It kicks up in the face of some people, and makes them cough,” Rodriguez said.

The pickers there work from 6 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., stuffing canvas bags full of apples that are then set into large wooden bins. A typical picker can fill six in a day’s time, earning $150, according to Rodriguez.

At both the Gebbers and Guelich orchards, the fires caused only a day’s delay in the harvests.

Guelich, 54, said he is grateful that his home was safe and no one was injured. The push to resume picking reflects the urgency of the harvest, he added.

“We are totally at the beck and call of the fruit maturity. We have a small window of time to pick.”

This week, a bleak landscape surrounds his orchard, but it hums with activity as bins full of big red organic Galas — some of his highest-value fruit — are hauled off to market. When you bite into these apples, fresh off the trees, they are an ever-so-sweet delight.

“I just absolutely love to farm. It’s God’s gift to me, and my passion,” Guelich said.