Those who lost homes in the 2014 Carlton complex fire know that this summer’s victims face a grueling comeback. But they also tell of remarkable help and hope.
TWISP, Okanogan County — It’s really quite astounding to visit the sites where, for two years in a row, wildfires have destroyed homes and farms in this region.
You see come to life those common refrains heard after disasters: staying strong, helping neighbors, having faith and the community coming together.
Just visit with someone like Buddy Thomas in Twisp. Not insured.
Or Forrest and Libby Harrison, 34 miles away in Pateros.
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Insured, but the only thing left in the ashes of their home after last year’s fire was a St. Christopher pendant that belonged to Libby’s deceased dad.
It turns out that in 2014, some 45 percent of the 312 homes destroyed in the Carlton complex fire were uninsured. Some people couldn’t get insurance because they lived outside fire-district boundaries, some couldn’t afford it.
Insured or not, it’s been a hard comeback.
The 2015 damage is still being tallied by the Okanogan County assessor, with some 150 homes and cabins destroyed, plus 80 other structures.
Those involved in the recovery efforts after the 2014 fires know what’s ahead. To say the least, it’s not going to be easy.
Upon hearing of this year’s fires, says Jon Wyss, one of the leaders in the 2014 effort, “It’s not printable what was going through my mind. Oh, no.”
Losing a dream
At 61, Buddy Thomas works at Hank’s Harvest Foods stocking shelves.
He lost the home he was putting up on 20 hillside acres. The last 2 gravelly miles on the road to reach it are marked “Primitive Road.” Tumbleweed catches under your car.
But once you arrive, the CinemaScope view is breathtaking — of the Cascades in the distance, pastures closer in, the small town below.
“I feel this is my spirit here,” Buddy says.
It already had been a tough few years for Buddy, when on July 17, 2014, the flames reached his home.
It was supposed to have been the place where he and Natalie Chichester, his partner of 27 years, would live out their days. They would build right into the hillside, fit right into nature.
But Natalie died in 2011 of cancer. “The worst thing that’s ever happened to me,” says Buddy.
The home had progressed to where an 850-square-foot structure had been built into the hill, with a concrete floor, a bathroom, and a place for stairs to reach the yet-to-be-built upper level that would make the place 2,000 square feet.
The bottom would end up being the garage, with the actual residence above.
“I could see fire coming. I could feel it,” he remembers about that July afternoon.
All that Buddy managed to save was the guitar he loved playing, some amplification equipment and a duffel bag of clothes. He had no insurance, he says, as the place was not yet up to code.
But then good things started happening for Buddy, thanks to a lot of people who take to heart the stuff about helping others.
Jerry Olson, 72, is a retired linoleum installer who lives in Silver Lake near Everett.
Watching the fires on the TV news last summer, he told his wife, Karen Ann, that he was going to drive their 28-foot motor home to the Methow Valley and give it to somebody needy.
She asked how he planned to get back home.
“Hey, God will take care of me,” Jerry remembers saying.
He ended up signing the RV over to Buddy, and had no problem finding a ride back to Silver Lake.
“The most fun I’ve had with that motor home was giving it away,” says Jerry.
Then more good things happened for Buddy.
He was helped by a group with one of those long, hard-to-remember names: the Carlton Complex Long Term Recovery Group.
The 2014 fire covered an area four times the size of Seattle, says the group’s chairman, Jon Wyss, who’s also president of the Okanogan County Farm Bureau.
The group has done the hard, tedious work it takes to raise funds.
Its goal has been to raise enough money to replace 40 homes for the region’s most vulnerable residents, at an average cost of about $80,000. The low price is due to donated labor and material bought at cost.
Now, Wyss already has been meeting to set up a new group. The 2015 wildfire victims will need help.
One of the things the group does is coordinate all the details.
For Buddy, the group worked with some retired guys who know construction and are part of the North Creek Presbyterian Church in Mill Creek.
“We saw what the families were going through. We wondered if we couldn’t build the exterior walls of houses and truck them over,” says Dick McGrath.
So the guys did exactly that, and building panels ended up on Buddy’s burned property.
Then something else good happened for Buddy.
Working with the recovery group are Mennonites from various parts of the country.
Visitors to Pateros or Twisp were curious to see women wearing long, plain dresses, and kerchief head coverings, although the men dressed in everyday wear.
Mennonites are part of Anabaptist lineage shared by the Amish.
Rylan Holdeman, 26, who works at the family rock-crushing business in Buhl, Idaho, now has been in Pateros with his wife for two and a half months as part of the Mennonite help.
The couple supervises four young Mennonite guys. Members of the church, he explains, stop their education at eighth grade, as they believe a basic education is all that’s needed. No smoking, no booze, no movies, no radio, no TV, only use of filtered Internet — a “humble way of life.”
It was the young Mennonite guys who used muscle power to put up the panels built by the retired guys.
‘We are very grateful’
And it was Mennonites, also, who helped put up the exterior and interior walls for the home Forrest Harrison was building.
“We are very grateful,” says Forrest.
You might recall dramatic photos from last summer, of Libby and the couple’s 6-year-old daughter, Avery, standing in front of ashes — all that remained of their home. Libby was mayor of the town.
Some would have considered taking the insurance money for their 1,250-square-foot house and moving. Not the Harrisons.
“We loved Pateros before the fire and love it even more now,” says Forrest.
A licensed contractor now working in sales, he is using the insurance money to build a much bigger house, 3,200 square feet.
Harrison is doing the work mostly by himself — drilling, pounding, sawing.
That means four 10-hour days in sales, and three days building the house.
A lot of hours.
“I knew what I was getting into,” says Harrison.
Back in December, Libby Harrison remembered in a blog what it was like that first day she returned to her burned-up home.
“NOTHING, absolutely nothing of our home was left … I fell to my knees in disbelief of what I saw, all our stuff gone, just gone … ”
Forrest hopes to have the new home ready to move into by January.
Libby, meanwhile, has started a paddleboat-renting business.
“Both of us, we never had a down time,” she says. “We are not downer people. We had to stay strong.”