Laborers lost a lot to fast-moving wildfire, now work to rebuild lives
Fifty laborers and family members living at the King Blossom Natural orchard in Brewster lost nearly everything to the Carlton complex fire early Friday morning. Now they must rebuild their lives.
Seattle Times staff reporter
BREWSTER, Okanogan County — Several days after the fire came to King Blossom Natural orchard, brothers Pablo and Asuncion Temoxtle dig through the twisted sheet metal and ash that was once their home, searching for jewelry they’d been saving as presents for their families in Mexico.
They find a charred metal can and Pablo cracks it open. It’s a stash of coins, some melted and blackened from the flames.
Flavio Trejo, their friend and co-worker here at the apple and pear orchard, sinks a shovel into the thick black ash and dumps the contents out on the grass. They examine the pile of debris. There is no jewelry.
The Carlton complex fire — the largest wildfire on record in Washington history — has destroyed more than 150 homes in the north-central part of the state. But that figure doesn’t fully capture the loss.
The fire sneaked into this rural area of Okanogan County from the western hillside early Friday morning, hours before the orchard workers would be up for their 5 a.m. shifts. The flames consumed two buildings at the farm that were home to 50 workers and family members.
The laborers escaped without injury, but had only seconds to grab their belongings. Many lost nearly everything they owned, including money they had saved from working at the orchard this summer.
Most spent the next several nights in an encampment of 13 tents adjacent to the rubble on the orchard grounds; a few others stayed on air mattresses set up at the high school in town, about 4 miles away.
“It was no use when we got home, it was just burned down,” said Trejo, a machinery driver. “Everything was burned down.”
The Temoxtle brothers were among those who suffered the greatest loss. They came to the orchard six years ago to work and send money back to their families in Mexico. Asuncion planned to visit his family next year, but with the cost of replacing belongings, he’s not sure if he’ll be able to go.
“Each paycheck they had, they sent money,” said Trejo. “Now they can’t send money because they need it here.”
It was “too late”
Okanogan County is home to a significant Spanish-speaking population. About 19 percent of the more than 41,000 people living in the area identify themselves as Hispanic or Latino, according to census estimates.
That population grows even larger in the summer, when seasonal workers move in, many from other states, to work in the region’s fruit orchards.
In emergencies such as the Carlton complex fire, information is usually broadcast in English, so minority populations often are the last to get the updates, said Zonia Quero-Ziada, Red Cross shelter manager in Brewster.
Though the workers at King Blossom could see the plumes of smoke wafting in the distance earlier the evening before, many said later they had no idea their home was in danger.
“The police were coming and driving by, but they never told us to evacuate,” said Trejo. “We never heard an alarm — nothing.”
It’s unclear if emergency responders could have evacuated the workers from the labor camp any sooner.
Late Thursday night, fire burned through the town of Pateros and the surrounding area, incinerating entire blocks of homes. Firefighters and law-enforcement officers scrambled to fight the enormous blaze and order immediate evacuations, said Okanogan Sheriff Frank Rogers.
In the hectic scene, Rogers said, he’s not sure if an evacuation notice made it more than 7 miles to Brewster, the town closest to the King Blossom orchard, by the time the flames burned down the hillsides and into the orchard.
Cathy Mendoza, a seasonal worker from California, woke up shortly after midnight to a man outside shouting that the fire was getting close, she said. Mendoza frantically jumped in the car with her husband and drove to Omak, about 27 miles away. She had no time to collect food or money, and they were almost out of gas.
Mendoza still doesn’t know who warned her about the fire — likely saving her life in the process — but it may have been Christian Pineda, another orchard worker.
As the fire closed in quickly from the hillside, Pineda grabbed a few sets of spare clothes, but left behind most everything else, including his wrestling medals from high school, some jewelry and $750, he said. Then he ran outside the cabins and began waking up the other workers.
“It was already a little too late,” he said. “They just got what they could see and they ran out.”
Cesar Trejo, Flavio Trejo’s father, packed his wife, children and young grandchildren into the car and also headed toward Omak, where they heard it was safe. At one point, they drove up to flames in the road and had to turn around and find another way in, he said.
About 20 workers met in the Wal-Mart parking lot in Omak. Mendoza didn’t sleep at all, she said.
“Nothing’s going to happen,” Mendoza remembered thinking. “It’s just smoke.”
As most fled, Carlos Bautista, who lives on the property in a trailer that survived the flames, was among a small group that stayed behind.
As the fire burned through firewood, equipment and wooden props for tree limbs, Bautista and his brother, Fernando, moved tractors out of its path. They set up sprinklers and sprayed the fire with a hose to stop it from moving toward three gasoline tanks — each holding up to 2,000 gallons, he said.
The fire reached one tank and it exploded. “It was a big ball of fire,” Bautista said.
The other two remained intact, and Bautista and the rest of the men were able to save much of the equipment, he said. But he watched helplessly as the fire consumed a trailer, which was home to seven people, and an 11-unit cabin with an attached house where 43 people lived.
By morning, rumors began to circulate among the workers who fled that their homes had been destroyed. Then they returned to find the carnage. All that remained was ash, burnt debris and the melted wire skeletons of bunk beds under the disfigured metal roof. One of the chickens on the farm was charred in the grass. A white husky named Bimbo was nowhere to be found.
Pineda poked around the still-burning ash of his cabin with a metal pole, searching for belongings that might have survived the intense heat. But it was all gone.
“I knew it was bad,” he said, “but not this bad.”
The day after the fire, the orchard’s owner arrived with tents and Wal-Mart gift cards for the workers. Though the farm is fully insured, the laborers did not have renters insurance, said Tim McLaughlin, president of AgriMACS, the company that owns King Blossom.
He said they will continue to offer financial support to the workers to help them rebuild their lives, and are trying to get the workers’ lost possessions reimbursed as part of the company’s insurance claim.
Despite the loss, the laborers went back to work as normal on Sunday.
Monday afternoon, they sat in plastic chairs near their tents, drinking Bud Light and eating donated pork, rice and beans out of Styrofoam takeout boxes.
The hills surrounding the camp were scorched black. A pickup camper shell was propped up against the wreckage with a hose draped over the top, for workers to use as a shower. A man sat on a tailgate and played a few off-key notes on an accordion.
Over the course of the evening, community members dropped off boxes of donated items: water, tortilla shells, canned beans, ice cream, boots and clothes. The workers and their families rifled through boxes and took what they needed.
“Muchas gracias!” they yelled as the good Samaritans drove off.
After dinner Monday, someone decided it was time to build a proper shower, and in moments they began erecting one with wooden props, tarp and twine. They told stories of what they lost in the fire. One man said more than $1,500 he’d saved up this year burned. Miguel Ronquillo, a 17-year-old who works on the farm in the summer, said he lost $500 and three guitars.
“It’s gone now, so I can’t do anything about it,” said Ronquillo nonchalantly.
Others lost IDs and other documentation.
Mendoza walked up to the burnt remains of her cabin and pointed to a pile of destroyed dishes next to a melted oven. Among other things, her collection of $2 bills, family photos and a bag of vital personal documents were lost, she said.
“I can’t believe it looks like this,” she said, standing in front of the wreckage that used to be her home. “I just — I can’t believe it.”
The cabins may have been small, she said, “but it was perfect, you know? Everything you need.”
Later in the week, many of the workers moved out of the tents and into worker housing at a neighboring orchard, said McLaughlin. Only a sliver of the orchard suffered fire damage, and since employees saved most of the equipment, the disaster shouldn’t slow down the orchard’s harvest this year, he said.
“We were really blessed nobody was hurt, nobody was killed,” said McLaughlin. “This was a very nasty event.”