As wildfires raged across North Central Washington, many residents spent anxious days trying to save their homes, often with the help of firefighters. Here are some of their stories.
As wildfires raged across North Central Washington, many residents spent anxious days trying to save their homes, often with the help of firefighters. Here are a few of their stories.
CONCONULLY — The Level 3 evacuation order had come days before. Get out now!
Not these guys.
They set up lawn chairs on the mowed green grass outside the home of Don Motes and watched the fire creeping down the hillside toward them.
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This was on Friday afternoon. The evacuation order had come Wednesday, and it was still in effect Saturday.
Except for the smoke and imminent danger, well, it was kind of a nice, sunny day in this little town of 210, just 18 miles west of Omak.
Frank Sautell, a friend of Motes who has a house a couple of blocks away, was keeping him company.
Sautell was in Portland when news of the evacuation came. He retired as a mechanic for Okanogan County, and now he and his wife come here for weekends. A great-grandfather of his helped start Conconully.
Of course he drove up. You do what you gotta do to save your home.
Motes had at first evacuated with his wife to their son’s home in Omak. Then he drove back.
“It’s where you live,” he explained. He didn’t appear emotional.
Motes had a 3,000-gallon aboveground pool filled with water. It had a gas-powered floating pump, with a long fire hose attached to it.
If the fire reached all the way down Funk Mountain, right to the beautiful log house, his home, at least Motes could do something.
“I wanted to be here,” he said.
There was a big cracking sound, and black smoke — a pine tree on fire as the blaze crept to within about a half-block away.
Firefighters, including the 15 or so volunteers in the town — plus others called in, then called out, then maybe called back in, as officials tried to best use stretched resources — had cut down the lower limbs from the trees.
Those limbs could be like a stepladder for the fire. They also had tapped into a water main, and drawn water from one of the lakes, to set up sprinklers.
The wind changed direction. The guys speculated about whether that was good or bad. Good, it was driving the fire away, northward.
Colleen Motes, Don’s wife, arrived with their son and granddaughter. Motes said she should bag some more belongings, like that expensive jacket.
Motes already had loaded up a trailer with stuff, ready to haul out of there if things got bad. Staring out of the trailer were a mounted deer head and a mounted elk head. Memories.
Don Motes, a resident of Conconully for about 50 years, watches wildfire come down the ridge behind his house on North Main Street Friday August 21, 2015. “I just want it to get here,” Motes said. “I’m ready for the fight.” He borrowed a float pump and a hose to pump the water from his pool if the blaze came close.
Motes told his wife that she better head back to Omak. They hugged. It was nearing evening. The drive out on Conconully Road included downed transformers, some still sparking, pocket fires here and there, black-charred acres of land on both sides of the road, fields full of rolled-up hay ready to go up in flames, and plenty of smoke.
Don said he might drive back to Omak Saturday morning, but when he didn’t show, Colleen headed back up.
She found him. He had been up all night watching the fire.
Just like the fire crews had expected, the blaze had died.
The fire had come to within 150 feet of the house.
— Erik Lacitis
TWISP — It wasn’t just about the house, which Glen Kominak and family members had built with their own hands.
Letting wildfire devour the home on Twisp River Road — where he, his wife, Anna, and their two children live — would be bad enough.
But there also were the saws and tools that lay in the carport behind the house on lower ground. Glen, 58, and his brother Gary, 56, used them for their tile-setting business. There was Gary’s house, just down the street, and the homes of their neighbors.
The key was the heavily wooded hill south of Glen’s 200-acre property, across Twisp River Road: If the fire reached that timber, it could spread even farther throughout the region. The brothers weren’t going to leave all that to burn.
So when the evacuation notice came Wednesday afternoon, they stayed, Glen and Gary and neighbors and friends, setting sprinklers on full and clearing ground. Someone brought a dozer and plowed a fire line around Glen’s home. They worked through the afternoon as flames approached.
“That whole four or five hours,” said Glen. “You’re numb … because inevitably, you’re going to lose your house.”
They worked Wednesday evening and into Thursday morning. A friend with a large water truck hauled several loads of water up to the property. A group of hotshot wildfire fighters from Jackson, Miss., dropped in and “basically stopped it at my driveway,” Glen said.
At 3:30 a.m. that morning, the fire snuffed out, the group declared victory: They saved the house, the tools and the hill behind them.
“It was like, ‘Hey, high-five, man, we did it,’ ” said Glen.
Not quite. Fires like these can go to sleep, as they say, and wake back up without warning. On Thursday, hot spots broke out in flames, and the family and friends scrambled all over the property dousing what they could. Firefighting helicopters and aircraft were signaled and splashed the property with loads of red fire retardant.
By midafternoon, they’d once again beaten the fire — but this time at a cost. The blaze swept down the hillside and devoured a barn and the carport, along with building supplies and $10,000 worth of saws and other tools, Glen said.
But standing out on the property Saturday, the brothers pointed to the green hill south of Twisp River Road, untouched by flames, and to the fire lines that held, keeping Glen’s home safe.
“A 5-acre island,” Gary described it, “in a 200-acre piece of ground.”
— Joseph O’Sullivan
CONCONULLY — On Saturday afternoon, Linda Baker stood on the deck of the house she and her husband have lived in for 38 years and watched flames and smoke creep down a hillside less than a quarter-mile away.
The couple were told to evacuate several days ago, but they didn’t intend to give up their oasis on the outskirts of Conconully without a fight.
“We’re just not going to leave our home,” Baker said.
They’re not being reckless about it, though.
Their vehicles are packed with valuable papers, pictures and other precious belongings, and the dogs and cats are corralled in the house.
“We’re not dumb,” she said. “We’ve lived around wildfire for a long time.”
But never before had such a threat hung over their heads. For the past three days the fire had been creeping ever closer — and all they could do was wait.
With resources stretched so thin, there isn’t enough manpower to attack head-on, Barker explained. Instead, firefighters are in a defensive mode, keeping watch, preparing to mobilize if — or when — the fire gets close enough to endanger the house.
That threshold was fast approaching. Baker’s husband, Hank, and a neighbor — both volunteer firefighters — headed out to cut brush and gouge a fire line above a small creek.
Spotters on the road put out the call, and a small team of firefighters roared up in a truck and joined them, lost from view in the thick vegetation.
Barker watched anxiously. “If it gets in those trees along the creek, it’ll burn forever,” she said. “Everyone else is so calm, and I’m just a disaster.”
Finally, the cavalry arrived in the form of two fire engines, including a unit from Eastside Fire & Rescue in North Bend. Their job was to save the house if the flames jumped the creek.
As smoke continued to billow, a radio crackled with a call to send in a helicopter to dump a load of water. But no choppers were available.
And so the waiting game continued.
Baker said she and her husband discussed what they would do if the fire took their house, and decided they wouldn’t rebuild.
They couldn’t stand to go through another ordeal like this one, she said.
“If we get burned out, we’re moving to Maui.”
— Sandi Doughton
RIVERSIDE — Brian Obert was told to leave his rural plot near Riverside, Okanogan County, on Tuesday, as the threat from neighboring fires grew. Fearing looters, he recalls, he told his neighbor that he wouldn’t leave “till I see flames come over that hill.”
He wouldn’t have to wait long.
The next day, as he awoke from an afternoon nap, he “saw the ball of flame,” the 58-year-old recalled. “I thought I saw two sunsets.”
He grabbed his dog and without locking the door ran for the truck, speeding down the four miles that separated his property from the main road. He did stop to take a picture of what he said was a 150-foot-wide fireball emerging from atop the ridge 700 feet above his land.
Two years ago, Ober sold his Hood Canal house and moved to the Okanogan land he had owned for 20 years. He parked his trailer there and ran a landscaping business from it.
On Friday, as thick smoke covered Omak, Obert was staying at the Cornerstone Christian church there, where other evacuees have gathered. It wasn’t until Friday afternoon that he learned the fate of his property, when a neighbor went up there and checked.
“Everything was gone,” he said. “Steel melted. Aluminum melted.”
His power tools, the trailer, the sheds where he stored his equipment. Gone. “All I have is my Toyota truck and my dog.”
Obert said he might stay with family in Kirkland or Issaquah, but he doesn’t know where he’ll end up.
“I love it here, what I had here. Now it’s gone.”
— Angel Gonzalez