Elaine Thompson / AP

Aftermath of historic Washington fire could be as destructive as flames

Worries that with no aid for individuals and no rental housing, some small towns might just disappear

PATEROS, Wash. — As Donni Reddington stepped on the accelerator in her silver Subaru last month and sped through the small town of Pateros, she could see the earth splintering around her in jagged lines of bright red flames.

In her car, she could feel the heat of the fire pressing in, clenching like a fist around everything in sight. She clicked the air conditioning to full blast and pointed the vents at her skin. No use.

Though it was 9 p.m., all around her the world was burning — the night sky glowing scarlet, orange sparks in the distance turning into rolling tidal waves of heat moving like lava risen from the earth. What she was seeing was a fire that would soon turn into a whirling, twisting, burning funnel cloud.

Smoke from the largest wildfire in Washington history heighten the reds and yellows of the sunset in the Methow Valley, July 18.
Elaine Thompson / AP

And here she was, driving straight into the belly of it, begging reluctant firefighters to let her get one last visual on her parents’ home in Twisp. She thought she was seeing it for the last time.

What she didn’t know was that the chaos swelling around her, the Carlton Complex fire, would become the largest in Washington history — an inferno that started from a crack of lightning on July 14 and destroyed 340 homes, from the shacks of immigrant farmworkers to the home of a town’s mayor .

Last week, with scattered fires smoldering in Okanogan County — the state’s largest county, a plot of land bigger than Delaware — assessor Scott Thurman estimated that the Carlton blaze alone claimed close to $28 million in assessed value. Several fires still burn in the region.

Damage like this would leave scars anywhere. But Okanogan is one of Washington’s poorest counties. It’s a place with almost no rental units, a place where folks eke out livings in apple orchards, where 20 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, compared with the state’s 12.9 percent.

Some worry that the fires might have done damage so severe, these places might not come back from it. That whatever the fires didn’t destroy, the aftermath of the disaster might.

“People who lost their homes are not only displaced out of their property, but they’ve really lost their community,” said Beth Stipe, executive director of the Community Foundation of North Central Washington. “They are in many ways scattered to the wind. There’s no place to go in a place that already struggled with affordable rental housing.”

And so government officials and community organizations are left scratching their heads over what to do next, wondering how exactly to make so many broken lives whole again.

Nature as a roommate

When you live in this part of the West, in the lush wildflower-flecked valleys of north-central Washington, among mountains lifted from paintings, you learn fast that the beautiful views and fresh air don’t come for free. With nature as your roommate, you can afford the rent only if you can handle harsh, long winters. And in summer, the fires.

Reddington remembers sitting on her back porch in Wenatchee as a little girl with a big bowl of popcorn in her lap, watching the wildfires crackle in the distance. Wildfires are something you respect, something that makes as much sense as spring cleaning. It’s Mother Nature’s way of beating out the carpets.

That night last month, she saw her parents’ house. She drove away thinking she would never see it again. But by some stroke of luck, some act of God, it’s one of the few homes still standing in that area. (She recorded what she saw that night — a video that now has nearly 6,000 views on YouTube.)

A plane drops fire retardant in Twisp, Washington, July 18. Wildfires are a part of life for longtime residents.
Elaine Thompson / AP

“Our summers are just filled with smoke,” Reddington said. Living here has always come at a cost, but even she wonders if fires like this will deter people from rebuilding. “All these great places we moved here to enjoy, they’re getting shut down, and they’re not going to be the same for years.”

“These people that are living in tents — winter’s just a few months around the corner,” she said. “What are they going to do? Where are they going to be?”

That’s what Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers started to worry about last week when the Federal Emergency Management Agency denied aid that would go directly to those people but approved funds to rebuild infrastructure in the county.

“They gave us the public side, which is great,” he said. “But on the [individual assistance] side, I was surprised. Because it’s a lot of homes that were destroyed, a lot of land destroyed, livestock, fences, hayfields. And we’re not a rich county.”

Though volunteers traveled from across the country to help set up 18 Red Cross crisis shelters during the worst of the fires, Nicolle LaFleur, a local official of the American Red Cross, said the toughest part of the disaster for her organization and other local nonprofits wasn’t in July but now.

“These are communities that have now had tremendous loss, and the loss is permanent,” she said. “And they are going to have to be dealing with this for a really long time.”

Disaster that doesn’t stop

For some people, the crisis gets worse. Rogers said many farmers and ranchers lost not only their homes but their livelihoods. He has heard anywhere from 300 to 1,000 cattle were killed by the fires. And for those whose herds survived, the fires burned up fields that would have been cut for winter hay. Now they wonder how they’ll feed their animals.

Burned areas around Pateros, on the Columbia River, July 24, 2014.

Stipe said the Community Foundation of North Central Washington recently invested $100,000 from its general fund to employ caseworkers to help victims, but she said getting people to stay here is a whole other challenge. “If they lose their people in a county that’s one of the poorest counties in the state,” she said, “that’s going to further put this county and these communities in a place that they can’t recover from.”

LaFleur said that though emergency shelters here are now closed, the threat has hardly passed. “I think what people don’t realize from afar is that fires are a disaster that just don’t stop,” she said.

Because that’s just the reality people accept when they live out here, in this far-flung corner of the West. That in those places where hurricanes and tornadoes destroy everything in its path, the sun will eventually shine. The season will pass.

Here, though, when the wildfires stop, there are mudslides.

And then there’s winter, always looming just around the corner.

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