MALAGA — Don Keeley happened to glance out his kitchen window last Saturday morning and saw smoke curling up from the grassy hillside across the road.
The 78-year-old Colockum resident is all too familiar with fire. A few years ago, he’d lost a shed full of antiques in a small grass fire near his home.
As he was calling 911, he saw the flames. Then he called his daughter, Cheryl, in Wenatchee, and asked her to come.
Keeley is among the dozens of rural residents who live in the dry, hilly countryside south of Malaga who lost homes, outbuildings, pastures and grazing land to the Colockum Tarps Fire. After a roadblock was removed Tuesday night, many residents were able to freely return to their homes for the first time, some meeting with insurance adjustors to begin taking stock of the damage. Three occupied homes and one vacant home were destroyed, another was heavily damaged and a sixth home suffered minor damage in the blaze.
Some people shared their stories on Wednesday afternoon as the area began to spring back to life. Chain saws could be heard cutting down trees, and utility crews repaired damaged lines. A delivery truck could be seen dropping off a package at a home, and a few fire crews worked in blackened areas.
As Keeley talked with an insurance agent, he recounted the early hours of the fire on Saturday.
After first reporting the blaze, Keeley said he watched as it moved down Colockum Pass Road, away from his house and out of sight. When his daughter arrived, she packed up family pictures and other irreplaceable mementos, then they waited awhile until a sheriff’s deputy told them it was time to leave.
After waiting out the fire in Wenatchee for a couple of hours, Don Keeley decided to go back and check on his property. His home and four outbuildings were fine, but the fire had crossed Colockum Creek below his house and was now burning back toward him.
The flames churned through dried grass and brush along a steep hillside and down to the creek bed, where many rural homes sit below the road level at the end of one-lane dirt driveways.
As the fire approached Bob Main’s mobile home, he packed up a few belongings and his cat and dog, and fled when emergency personnel told him to “get out now!” Main said during an interview Wednesday afternoon. A friend who lives with him stayed to try and defend the home from the oncoming fire.
“He didn’t really have anywhere else to go,” Main said. “He had a tractor and a sprayer.”
The fire burned on either side of the home, consuming a large, four-car garage, a mobile home and a small structure housing a gas tank. It burned up landscaping in front of the home and then burned trees and brush within a few feet of the house.
At one point, a wall of the home caught fire and Main’s friend poured a gallon of milk on it, putting it out.
“It’s all he had,” Main said.
A utility pole about 20 feet from Main’s front door burned through and snapped off, landing near the house.
The fire moved on. The house where Main has lived for 33 years was saved.
The blaze moved farther up the canyon, causing major damage to Greg and Jodi Simmons’ home. The Simmonses had been out of town, but returned in time to save a few belongings. Then they watched their house burn.
Then the fire moved on up the canyon to Keeley’s home. Keeley watched from the top of small bank as the flames engulfed a 48-foot refrigerated van housing some of his collectibles. The flames kept going up the canyon, and he thought his home and other outbuildings were safe. Keeley then drove a mile down the road to meet his daughter at a road block, but sheriff’s deputies wouldn’t let her through.
She went through anyway, with a strong admonition from deputies that it was at her own risk. As she and her dad drove up the road, they were met by firefighters coming down.
“They said everything was gone,” Cheryl Keeley said. “It was all in flames.”
Firefighters were pulling out from all the homes directly above there because it was too dangerous.
“It was very intense at that time,” said fire spokesman Rick Isaacson. “The fire was jumping back and forth across the road and was running up hills and down hills.”
Then power poles started burning through and snapping off. Firefighters were told to retreat because their escape route was threatened.
“They had to leave,” Isaacson said. “We didn’t need to lose any firefighters.”
The Keeleys drove a little further but saw a wall of flames about 50 feet from the house. They turned around and left.
The fire continued its march up the canyon, picking up intensity as it hit a tree-filled wash where homes were located belonging to Dean and Kandae Laymance, Phil and Cheri Rayburn and Thomas and Roxanne Kendrick. All three homes burned to the foundation with nothing left.
Someone rescued the Kendrick’s horse.
From there, the fire fanned out in several directions.
Meanwhile, another front of the fire was working its way over to the Tarpiscan Road side of the hill, where it burned up livestock fencing and outbuildings.
As the fire moved toward Diane Graves’ home, she and her family moved their seven horses out of harm’s way and freed three horses from a neighbor’s pasture.
She said the fire moved so slowly at that point that it took 45 minutes to move down the hill to the back of her house. She had time to cook two pizzas for the fire crew protecting her home, she said.
She packed up her car with pictures, saddles, a computer and cameras.
Much of her 980 acres was burned over, and she lost a water pump and holding tank. But her home was saved by the firefighters.
Once the fire had passed, her son went looking for two draft horses that were being pastured on her land. He found them in a little unburned area that had been doused in retardant from a tanker.
Graves believes the tanker pilot deliberately made the drop to save the horses, which were partially covered in the red, sticky substance. She said they surely would have died without the drop since all the land around them was burned.
On Sunday morning, Don and Cheryl Keeley drove back to his home, expecting to find nothing but ashes. But, while all four of the outbuildings were destroyed, the house was untouched. He said the fire crew pumped 20,000 gallons of water out of his swimming pool to drench his house before they left.
Don Keeley met with his insurance adjuster on Wednesday afternoon. They surveyed the remains of large garage that had been stuffed with “gobs of stuff,” as Keeley put it. The fire had been fed by five and a half cords of firewood that was recently stacked behind the garage. Inside the garage was a tractor, riding lawnmower, rototiller and antiques. Everything was destroyed.
“It must have been one hell of a barbecue,” Keeley said.
Three other metal outbuildings burned, but one small wooden shed behind the house was untouched, which Keeley marveled about.
“I don’t know where we go from here,” he told the agent, Eric Nieuwenhuis from Mutual of Enumclaw.
“We start going through everything and seeing if there’s anything that can be salvaged,” Nieuwenhuis said.
Keeley said her dad lost a lot of treasures, but he’s fortunate to still have his home.
“But you wouldn’t believe how many times I’ve headed to that shop in the last couple of days to get something,” Don Keeley said, “only to remember that it’s all gone,”