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Originally published July 18, 2014 at 10:07 PM | Page modified July 19, 2014 at 10:05 AM

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‘Pandemonium’ as blaze roars down hill to engulf Pateros

The Okanogan County Sheriff’s Office said as many as 100 homes were destroyed in the county, at least 30 of them in Pateros. Winds reached 35 miles an hour on Friday, which, combined with high temperatures and tinder-dry vegetation, was a recipe for an inferno.


Seattle Times staff reporters

How you can help

The American Red Cross is accepting monetary donations to help the victims of the Eastern Washington fires. Donations can be sent to the Red Cross Apple Valley Chapter, 12 Orondo Ave., Wenatchee, WA 98801

Highway closures

As of Friday night:

• Highway 2 closed between Coles Corner and Leavenworth.

• Highway 97 closed from near Chelan to Brewster at Highway 17.

• Highway 20 closed from milepost 206 to 215 — a 9-mile section that starts 4 miles east of Twisp to the Loup Loup summit.

State Department of Transportation

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'The fire burned trees on the west side of his property, and the lawn as far as 10 feet from house, and then stopped.... MORE

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PATEROS, Okanogan County — The scene was apocalyptic.

Bent metal and a scorched foundation where a home once stood. Blobs of melted plastic marking the remains of household items. A brick chimney standing in the midst of the rubble.

All day Friday, residents who had been told to evacuate the previous night, as hillside orchards above the town lit up with flames, returned and hoped.

Some were lucky. Some could only stare in disbelief.

The Okanogan County Sheriff’s Office said as many as 100 homes were destroyed in the county, at least 30 of them in Pateros, population 650.

Another 40 burned in the nearby Alta Lake area and about 25 more were destroyed elsewhere in the county, said Sheriff Frank T. Rogers.

What is called the Carlton complex fire, started Monday by lightning, had grown to 169,000 acres, or about 260 square miles, by Friday evening, after leaving parts of this town smoldering wreckage.

“It has zero containment. The wind is taking it where it chooses to go,” said Dan Omdal, spokesman for interagency group fighting the fire, late Friday afternoon.

He said winds reached 35 miles an hour on Friday, which, combined with high temperatures and tinder-dry vegetation, was a recipe for an inferno. The weather forecast for the region called for highs in the 80s and winds to 20 miles per hour and gusts of 25-30 mph.

Omdal said the fire stretched from Winthrop south to Alta Lake State Park and Pateros, and the hills west of the Columbia River. There have been no fatalities, he said.

The Carlton complex is the largest of four major fires in the state.

As the fire continued its spread Friday night, authorities were urging residents to evacuate the town of Malott, north of Brewster along Highway 97, where at least one house had burned, and also some outlying areas.

Malott is home to about 500 people, while the population of Brewster is about 2,400.

In Pateros, some who had fled the town on Thursday night returned on Friday to see what was once their home, their backyard, the kids’ outdoor playthings, as if the proverbial bomb had been dropped on them.

David Brownlee, 75, said he drove away Thursday just as the fire reached the front of his home, which erupted like a box of matches.

“It was just a funnel of fire,” Brownlee said. “All you could do was watch her go.”

Pateros Mayor Libby Harrison stood outside her concrete driveway — about the only structure left — with her daughter, Avery, 5. Nearby was her husband, Forrest Harrison, talking to friends who had come to offer help.

A couple of guys from the Best Deals car dealership in nearby Brewster were there, telling the couple they could borrow for free a fifth-wheel camper.

The family evacuated with their two dogs, a few pieces of clothing and some documents. They couldn’t find their cat, and he hadn’t reappeared when the couple returned.

“I’m still in shock,” said Libby Harrison.

Next was to contact the insurance company.

“I hope we’re covered,” Libby Harrison said. “I hope so.”

The wildfire almost seemed to pick its victims at random.

Daniel Atkisson returned Friday to his home near Kelly and Ives streets that abutted the hillside that went afire.

His girlfriend and her son had left earlier, but Atkisson wanted to hose down the yard and house.

As the fire appeared atop the hill, a sheriff’s deputy drove up and used a megaphone.

“He was pretty mad sounding,” said Atkisson. Other neighbors also were climbing roofs to hose down their properties.

“He yelled, ‘Everybody get out or I’ll cuff people!’ At that point I figured I better evacuate,” Atkisson said.

The fire burned trees on the west side of his property, and the lawn as far as 10 feet from house, and then stopped. His home was saved. Across the street, rows of homes burned to the ground.

“I still pray,” said Atkisson, giving one reason for his luck.

Many of evacuated families stayed Thursday night at Chelan High School some 20 miles away, in a shelter set up by the Red Cross.

Families and babies slept on cots in classrooms. By noon Friday, 113 people had been signed in.

Later in the afternoon, Gov. Jay Inslee visited the shelter. He promised to expedite moving an emergency-management team to Chelan.

“You’re the center of the state right now,” Inslee told Chelan County Sheriff Brian Burnett.

Among those at the shelter was Michael Murphy and his wife. The couple had been watching golf at their Pateros home when he saw a barrage of emergency vehicles blow past their windows. Murphy walked outside and saw flames pouring across a hill in the distance.

Within 10 minutes, he said, the blaze had engulfed the entire hillside.

“It was pandemonium in the streets of Pateros,” he said.

The family left almost everything behind, including Murphy’s seizure medication.

“The whole place was lit up,” he said. “People (were) crying on the side of the road.”

A friend told Murphy his house survived the fire, but power is expected to be out for at least a week.

The fire consumed utility poles from two major power lines, knocking out electricity to Pateros as well as the towns of Winthrop and Twisp to the north.

In the parking lot of the Chelan evacuation center, Jim Otis sat in his Chevy Suburban and motioned backward with a lit cigarette.

“That’s all I got to my name, what’s in the back of the rig there,” he said.

It’s not much: some clothes, his birth certificate and a motorcycle helmet he plans to pawn. But it’s all he could grab before the fire engulfed his trailer home.

Otis left work in the nearby town of Brewster around 5 p.m. Thursday, and got home to find a hot black cloud looming over the trailer park, with ash raining down. An hour or so later he saw flames coming up over a nearby hill and he knew he couldn’t stick around any longer. He met up with some friends at the Pateros fire hall, but the flames were spreading quickly, and soon that area wasn’t safe either.

“It probably didn’t take 45 minutes before the town was engulfed,” he said.

He fled to Chelan, where he stayed with an acquaintance, and ended up at the shelter Friday morning to plan his next move.

“I’m still trying to figure out a place to land tonight,” he said. “Long-term plans are kind of off the scope right now.”

Yet even after losing almost everything, Otis has managed to keep things in perspective.

He said he had a heart attack three years ago, “so I’ve had worse days.”

“This is an inconvenience.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.



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