Dozens of shell-shocked fire refugees from Pateros and the Methow Valley poured into Chelan High School late Thursday night, many sharing terrifying stories of fire racing through neighborhoods and burning down everything in its path.
Many more people appeared to be camped out in the WalMart parking lot in cars and trailers, some still waiting to meet up with friends and family who hadn’t come down from fire-ravaged Pateros, Brewster and the Methow Valley.
Whole neighborhoods were destroyed, along with a church and at least one business in Pateros, they recounted. Similar stories were coming out of nearby Brewster and Alta Lake.
“I watched the water tower go up in flames,” Pateros School District Superintendent Lois Davies said. “Transformers were popping like firecrackers. The air was so heavy.”
Davies had been setting up an evacuation center at Pateros High School for fire evacuees from the Methow Valley when she noticed fire coming down the hill toward the city
“Then the wind came up and it just took off,” she said. “It was like a waterfall; it was so fast. It was just consuming the town.”
She added, “It was an inferno.”
Evacuee Ting Hiltz recounted, “The whole town just went dark, dark as night.”
She said sheriff’s deputies were using loud speakers to tell people to evacuate immediately.
She said she had already evacuated earlier in the day from her home in the Methow Valley. She’d loaded computers, important papers, her pets and kids into the car and went to Pateros. She was there at a vacant house they own when the fire reached the city. “I figure my house is gone,” she said.
Alta Lake resident Sue Gessel said she could feel the heat of the fire as she left.
“I could see the frames of houses burning on the hill,” she said, as she drove through Pateros.
Curt Pilling and his family drove from Montana on Thursday to go to their cabin at Alta Lake, unaware there was a fire burning in the Methow Valley. They evacuated when fire reached the Alta Lake Golf Course, not far from the home.
He drove past Pateros as he headed toward Chelan. He said the whole city looked like it was on fire. “The fire burned all the way to the (Methow) river. The homes are all gone. The whole hillside went up in flames.”
For evacuees Tony and Rose Hughes,Chelan High School was their second shelter of the day. He said their house near Methow burned to the ground Wednesday night. They were sheltered at a motel in Pateros when they were awakened by sirens and then dire warnings to get out of the city fast.
“I watched my house and all my neighbors houses burn to the ground the night before,” he said. “Then I watched Pateros burn. The fire took out everything from the river to the high school. All those houses are gone.”
By 12:45 a.m., Red Cross volunteers were preparing for an influx of refugees still at WalMart. More cots were expected to arrive at the high school from Wenatchee. Volunteers took food and supplies to the parking lot, where some people could be seen walking their dogs.
Community members donated vehicle loads of supplies — sheets, blankets, sleeping bags, pillows, towels, toiletries, baby supplies, toys, games and movies for children.
“It’s just been incredible,” said Christina Eglin, Americorps disaster services coordinator for the American Red Cross.
Davies, the Pateros superintendent, and a handful of Pateros teachers — some of them evacuees themselves, stayed at the shelter to offer support to Pateros students staying there. Some Chelan residents offered to take fire refugees into their homes.
“I know a lot of houses, a lot of the city is gone,” Davies said. “But when the smoke clears, we’ll get to work. Pateros is a very tight knit community. People will pull together and help each through this.”