For some of those evacuated from the wildfires, the worst uncertainty is not knowing what they’ll find when they return home.

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BREWSTER, Okanogan County — For Jesse Parker, the worst thing about being driven out of his home by fire isn’t sleeping in a tent or eating cold food. It’s the uncertainty.

“The emotional aspect of it is not knowing if you’ve lost 15-plus years of your life,” he said Sunday, nearly a week since he and his extended family fled the rural canyon east of Tonasket where they live off the grid. “It’s like a knot the size of a watermelon in your belly.”

The family has no idea whether their homes survived the fire, nor do they know when it will be safe to return.

As the tangle of wildfires burning across Central and Eastern Washington merged and spread over the past several days, thousands of residents have been evacuated. Many are staying with friends and family. Others set up tents, RVs and campers in Wal-Mart and Home Depot parking lots, or in several area parks opened up to refugees.

A Red Cross shelter at Brewster High School, just across a grassy field from the riverside park where Parker and his family pitched their tents, served 500 meals on Friday.

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Wildfire growth
Twisp fire

Carolyn and Jerome Moore were refugees twice over by the time they arrived, tired and resigned, at the Brewster shelter. To dodge choking smoke, they had abandoned their Tonasket-area home to stay on a property they own in Mazama. A day later, that area was evacuated.

By Saturday afternoon, they were facing a fourth night sleeping on cots in the school gymnasium.

“It’s better than being out here in the smoke,” Jerome said, sitting under a tree with his Chihuahua mix named Ikus. But his temporary homeless status forced him to delay a round of chemotherapy drugs for the cancer he was diagnosed with more than year ago.

“They’ve been awesome to us here,” Carolyn said. “But I’m ready to go home.”

The Moores heard from neighbors that their house survived, but they’re reluctant to return because of the heavy smoke and volatile fire conditions.

Carolyn’s son, Tom Schamel, and his family were at the shelter, too, after being driven out of their riverfront trailer in Twisp. He’s been sleeping in the back of his truck, rather than inside, to keep the family’s three dogs company.

Brewster’s riverside park and high-school parking lot are packed with campers and recreational vehicles, but few are occupied by vacationers.

Maria and Carl Shockley and two of their neighbors were bunking together in a 25-foot fifth-wheeler. Another couple that lives near them in the Aeneas Valley, east of Tonasket, parked their RV next door.

The couples had all evacuated to Tonasket, expecting to wait out the fires there. But just a few hours after they arrived, an evacuation order was issued for the entire town.

“We were convoyed out of Tonasket,” said Maria Shockley. “There were about 50 or 60 of us in RVs, and there were flames on both sides of the road. It was surreal.”

The fire in the area had been burning for several days, but few resources were deployed, said Carl Shockley. “They just didn’t do anything about it at first because they didn’t have the manpower.”

Their neighbor, Marie Macey, said it’s jarring to find herself in the role of a displaced person.

“It’s usually watching TV, and seeing other disasters and thinking — oh, those poor people,” she said, sitting on the steps of the fifth-wheeler. “Now it’s us.”

But she acknowledge that people who choose to live close to nature — however beautiful it may be — also need to realize the risks. “It’s something we have to deal with,” she said.

Macey knows her home is OK. A friend saw the Shockleys’ shed after the fire passed through, but didn’t get up the hill to check on their house.

The possibility that it might be gone brought Maria Shockley to tears. She and her husband are both retired and have lived there for more than 15 years, she said.

“At our age, are we going to have to start again?”

Saturday afternoon, the group got word that it was OK to go back to Tonasket and wait for the all clear to venture back into their valley.

As they got ready to leave, Carl Shockley said he’s anxious to know the answer to his wife’s question. “If they open that road for even a few minutes, I’m heading up the hill,” he said.