The population of tiny Cle Elum has swelled as more than 1,000 firefighters, insurance agents, reporters and concerned relatives flocked in during the Taylor Bridge wildfire.
CLE ELUM — People here are accustomed to crowds in the summer — at least on the weekends, when Seattleites with vacation cabins on nearby Lookout Mountain and Interstate 90 travelers come into town.
But for this town of 1,872, the influx this week of more than 1,000 firefighters, insurance agents, reporters and concerned relatives has been a spectacle, as the Taylor Bridge wildfire rages.
More than 200 tents fill a field to the east of Cle Elum’s elementary, middle and high schools, serving as temporary homes for firefighters. A stand selling “Taylor Bridge Fire” shirts and hats appeared across the street by midweek.
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Vishi Thapar, manager of the Econo Lodge, said his hotel was completely booked for a number of nights last week, something that had never happened.
“I was calling the other hotels, they were calling me,” he said, trying to find rooms for those coming into town and about two dozen people who had been ordered to evacuate because of the fire.
Most of those guests have been replaced at the hotel by those in town for the Cle Elum Car & Motorcycle Show this weekend, held Saturday despite the tendrils of smoke curling up in the distance.
Feeding and housing almost 1,000 extra people in tiny Cle Elum can present a logistical challenge.
Devin Campbell, the deli manager at Super 1 Foods in nearby Ellensburg, got an order Tuesday morning for 150 lunches. A few hours later, he took a second order for 700 more.
“We were wiped out after 150,” he said.
The supermarket had to send to Yakima for more meat.
Working on an assembly line, the deli’s workers sliced up more than 200 pounds of ham and turkey for the sandwiches. (Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were available for the vegetarian firefighters.) The workers also packed up 1,700 each of energy bars, Capri Sun drinks and sticks of gum, along with 850 each of granola bars, apples, oranges and bags of chips.
The firefighters, who for the moment make up more than a third of Cle Elum’s population, have become a regular presence on First Street, the town’s main drag, and the fastest route to the fire.
Locals frequently ask them for updates when they stop at McKean’s Drive-In or the 76 gas station.
McKean’s, like other businesses in town, offers firefighters a discount. And firefighters eat free at Cle Elum’s McDonald’s, on the other end of town.
It can be easier for the locals to talk with the firefighters than with their neighbors these days.
Cherie Renee, who works at the 76 station across the road from McKean’s, said she doesn’t chat with her customers as readily now. “You can’t hardly say anything,” she said, “because you don’t know whose house is gone and whose isn’t.”
Sophey Sadler, who works at McKean’s, said her family considered leaving its South Cle Elum home when flames erupted Monday, even though the fire was several miles away.
“My mom was talking about packing bags and getting out,” said Sadler, 18.
But she said the fear has worn off.
She and her friends drove up Bettas Road the other night to get as close as they could to the fire, and they have taken to helping out when they can, like helping load water into trucks.
“It’s been quite a few days now,” she said. “It’s normal now.”
Theodoric Meyer: firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-464-2985