PATEROS — After fires stormed across the Methow Valley and into Pateros Thursday, claiming dozens of homes and sending residents fleeing, fire officials are bracing for similar conditions today.
Those conditions were dire. Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers estimated at least 95 homes in Pateros and the lower Methow Valley were destroyed by fire. But no one was injured or killed by the fast-moving flames, he said.
On Thursday, fire from the Carlton Complex spread in every direction, winds gusted up to 30 mph, and the fire was spotting up to a half-mile away.
“We could, unfortunately, see the same exponential growth we saw yesterday,” said fire spokesman Jim Archambeault.
Parts of Highway 97 north of Brewster and Highway 20 between Twisp and Okanogan are closed today.
The fire is now estimated at 167,000 acres and four fires have merged into two larger ones.
Sheriff Rogers — who stayed on the fire all night — said his deputies counted 30 homes destroyed in Pateros, 40 near Alta Lake, 10 in a trailer park on Star Road, and at least 15 along Highway 153. He had no count of homes lost north of Carlton.
Rogers described notifying residents in the hills from Methow to Pateros as the flames reached their yards. He said at one house, they told a woman to leave immediately as fire approached but she couldn’t find her car keys. Someone else showed up and offered to take her out.
“It’s been nuts,” he said. “We were on roads telling people to leave and three hours later it was all gone. Everybody’s been notified. I just hope they all left,” he said.
On Thursday night, Nathan Rabe, incident commander of the Type 2 Team now in charge of this fire, said safety is his highest priority. “I was here at Libby South and Thirtymile,” he told a few hundred people who came to an information meeting Thursday, referring to the 2001 fire that killed four firefighters north of Winthrop.
“I have 18, 19, and 20-year-olds here. Their parents entrusted me with their kids,” he said.
The team will get help today from a Type 1 NIMO Team, a national group that includes some of the nation’s top fire experts.
“They basically support what we are doing,” said fire spokesman Rick Seriven. “They are the experts of the experts, and they have the horsepower to get resources,” he said.
The Methow Valley lost power at about 4:30 p.m. Thursday, and officials have no estimate of when it may come back on. Up to four miles of the valley’s main transmission line over the Loup Loup Highway is within the fire’s perimeter and still too hot to determine what needs replacing.
“Mother Nature is winning here,” said Okanogan County Fire District 6 Chief Don Waller, whose volunteer firefighters have been chasing fire all over the valley since Monday night’s lightning storm.
“I don’t like to lose structures. I truly bothers me,” he said. “But there is nothing we can do about this.”
Waller said in a firestorm like this the homes that come through are those where residents have done the work to clear all fuels from around their homes.
“It does make a whole lot of difference,” he said.
Residents throughout the valley were getting prepared, even if their homes were not near the fire. Greg Autrey waited in line Thursday afternoon at Hank’s Mini Market in Twisp for fuel, his car packed with ice and water. He said he just texted his sister a photo of the lines at the gas station — usually unheard of in this rural town.
Autrey said he wasn’t worried about himself or his house in Twisp. But, he said, “I have a 90-year-old grandmother, so I am getting her packed up and ready to leave.”
At the Carlton General Store, residents were coming in exhausted after working to protect their homes.
Barb Dubée said firefighters saved her home on Lower Stokes Road near Carlton Wednesday night, but she went home Thursday to find them battling fire from another front.
She had moved out her great dane, her pug, and three parrots, one of whom talks. “She kept saying, ‘Oooh, we’re going for a ride,’” Dubée said as she was packing her minivan. She is staying at the Carlton Motel until her home is safe enough to return.
Melissa Kendrick, who works at the Carlton General Store, said she came to work Thursday morning with her car packed up and brought her dogs and cats in case fire reached her home a couple miles away. “It’s really, really, really, crazy,” she said. “There’s lots of people calling to see if we’re open, and if we have gas, and if the road’s open.”
Store owner Jeff Lyman said the only things he packed were underwear, an ax and his fishing rods. “That was it; the rest of it can go,” he said.
Lyman said he’s been staying open late to accommodate friends and neighbors, and is struck by how much everyone is helping everyone else. “I know everyone’s house that’s in danger, and everyone’s house that’s burned. It’s tough,” he said. “But,” he added, “the thing about this place is we don’t skip a beat. And it doesn’t matter who you are — mi casa, es su casa.”
Dennis Ryan, who lives not far from the Carlton store, said he thought Wednesday night he’d be looking for somewhere to go when the Stokes Road Fire crossed Highway 153 and swept up Justin Road, where he lives. Firefighters couldn’t stay to protect his house because there is no escape route, he said.
“All of us abandoned ship. We drove out in the alfalfa field and sat on the roof of the car and watched the four-foot flames race across his property. He didn’t know what to expect when he went home Thursday. His 14 acres of forest and sagebrush now look like a moonscape, he said.
“The house is still there. It’s like an oasis out in the desert,” he said.