Hundreds flee wildfires in Central Washington
Wildfires are sweeping across tens of thousands of acres in Central and Eastern Washington, burning homes and forcing residents to pack up and run. As fire crews struggle, hot, dry, breezy weather is expected to continue.
Seattle Times staff reporters
CHELAN COUNTY — It’s wildfire season around the state, and the toll is mounting.
In scorched rural Washington, four wildfires in the Methow Valley claimed up to 100 homes on Thursday in the Pateros area, after the Carlton complex fire doubled within hours.
No injuries were reported, Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers said Friday morning.
The fire jumped Highway 20 and consumed power lines, leaving Twisp to Mazama without electricity. At least four highways were closed, a hospital in Brewster was evacuated, and hundreds of residents in several towns were urged to leave.
“There’s huge amounts of fire going on all over,” said Scott Miller, Okanogan County emergency manager. “It’s both sad and amazing.”
Thousands of acres in Central and Eastern Washington have burned: 4,580 acres at Chiwaukum Creek, 22,571 in Entiat Valley, and 47,362 at the Carlton complex by Friday morning, according to the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center.
That’s the equivalent of more than 93 University of Washington main campuses.
Rain would be a saving grace. But the region is due for breezy winds and low humidity, ideal for growing wildfires. A red-flag alert is to last until 11 p.m. Friday.
Jacob McCann, spokesman for the Carlton complex fire, said much of the valley was under Level 3 evacuation Thursday night — meaning people had to leave immediately — including areas south of Carlton and east of Winthrop near Cougar Flat.
Sheriff’s deputies went door to door pressing residents to evacuate, McCann said.
“There’s nobody in Pateros” except a few “stragglers,” Rogers said late Thursday.
He said the fire was burning in the town, although the small business district was believed intact.
Perhaps 15 to 20 homes had burned in Pateros, Rogers said, and another 20 in the Twisp-Winthrop area.
He had no estimate of how many homes had burned in the entire county of about 40,000 people.
The tragedy in Pateros could be seen roadside late Thursday night through a young couple, Matt Hunt, 33, and his wife, Melissa Hunt, 35. Like many, they had headed south toward Chelan.
It was around 11:30 p.m., and they were parked by Highway 97, 14 miles south of their little town of 650 along the Columbia River. Authorities had closed the road at that point — nobody allowed to travel in, just leave.
Inside their car was their small daughter, sleeping.
The husband remembered what had happened earlier in the day, around 5 or 6 in the afternoon.
“The fire truck and police were going around, ‘Get out now!’” he said.
The couple lives in an apartment in town, and had already packed keepsakes for evacuation.
“Clothes, pictures, nothing heavy like beds or the TV,” Matt Hunt said.
Melissa said they saw the fire coming down the hill.
“It all happened in a matter of minutes,” he said. “I was born and raised in Chelan. I’ve gone through fires. Nothing like this.”
They had taken their belongings to his parents, who live in nearby Manson. Later in the evening they decided to drive back to Pateros.
“We wanted to see if there was anything left,” Melissa said.
They had heard stories — the town was gone.
The couple was told no, they couldn’t go back, not tonight.
She went back to the car, and sat, holding her head. He got in and they drove off.
Looking at the sky, you could see the red glow.
Chiwaukum Creek fire
But these areas also are vacation and retirement places for many.
In unincorporated Plain, with one grocery store and one hardware store, on Thursday you could watch locals enjoying ice-cream cones outside a local shop.
Temperatures were in the 90s. Just a mile south, at the 500-acre Ponderosa Estates development, on Wednesday some 320 residents left with their pets and any special belongings they could pack.
That’s how it goes in the often-unpredictable wildfires that can quickly shift direction with the wind. A mile can make a big difference.
Plain, 14 miles from Bavarian-themed Leavenworth, was declared by the county sheriff a Level 1, meaning, “take precautions.”
The nearby development was Level 3: “Evacuate immediately.”
Some 860 homes had been declared Level 3 in what’s known as the Chiwaukum Creek fire that shut Highway 2 from Stevens Pass to Leavenworth. The road opened later Thursday, to allow access to Lake Wenatchee using Highway 207.
Bob MacGregor, spokesman for agencies fighting the fire, said the Entiat Valley fires were being contained, and crews felt “surprisingly good” about Chiwaukum Creek given that Wednesday “we had no control” over it.
That would also be welcome news for Leavenworth’s 380 hotels, motels, bed & breakfasts and others who rent lodging to tourists — the town’s top source of income.
July is the biggest moneymaking month, said Jessica Stoller, Chamber of Commerce spokeswoman. She said she’s gotten hundreds of calls from tourists wondering about conditions in the area.
“Everything in town is still open for business, all the activities are going strong.”
Those worried about air quality can check with the state’s Department of Ecology website. On Thursday evening, Leavenworth was listed as “unhealthy for sensitive groups,” and Wenatchee as “unhealthy.”
Meanwhile, Daryn Wilbur, president of the Ponderosa Community Club, said residents were keeping “our fingers crossed” the fire — miles from the development — wouldn’t jump Highway 2 and the Wenatchee River to reach their homes.
He said the community “was very aware” of fire danger in their area and had worked with the state to thin forests for fire prevention.
He explained the appeal of a place like Ponderosa Estates: “It’s a nice community out in the foothills, 300 days of sun a year, yet you’re not out in the desert. A big attraction is that you leave Friday at 5 and by 7 o’clock you have a nice weekend, relaxing.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Erik Lacitis reported from Central Washington; Colleen Wright reported from Seattle. Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or firstname.lastname@example.org