PATEROS — Residents returning here Friday picked through the ash and rubble of homes incinerated the night before by raging wildfire. Baby pictures, gone. Family antiques, gone. Grandma’s recipes, gone.
In a half-block line of charred homes — mostly burned down to their foundations — each resident echoed their neighbors: “We lost everything.”
More than 30 homes were destroyed here Thursday night by wind-whipped flames racing down a grass-and-sage bluff and into this river town of 650 residents. Nearby, flying embers jumped the Methow River to torch another 40 homes along the Alta Lake Golf Course. An estimated 20 homes also burned further up the Methow River.
On Friday, the town remained deep in smoke with ghostly chimneys rising from piles of metal roofing, twisted refrigerators, melted boats, smoldering fence rails and burned auto carcasses. Clusters of blackened grapes still hung on scorched vines; charred apricots dangled from fire-stripped branches. Firefighters tamped down spot fires burning in grassy patches between homes.
City and emergency officials said the fire situation “remained fluid” through Friday afternoon as flames spread east to Brewster and south up nearby hills and beyond.
“We could see the flames at the top of the hill at around 7 p.m.,” said Pateros Councilwoman Christine Perry, “and then they were on us. We had three minutes to grab the grandkids, the new puppies and the puppies’ mom.” By 7:15 p.m., her house was in flames.
On Friday afternoon, Perry stood in Pateros City Hall in shorts, T-shirt and flip-flops she’d bought that morning at the Chelan Walmart. “These are pretty much all the clothes I have,” she said. She looked down at her toes. “Definitely the only shoes.”
Perry said she plans to spend several nights at city hall. “I don’t have a house to go to,” she said, “but I also want to be here if people need help — food, water, maybe clothes, maybe other things.”
Thursday night’s fire knocked out power to the town, and officials said it might not be restored for a week. Flames also engulfed the town’s two water tanks, which for decades have sported plastic art reflectors on their exteriors. Witnesses said the reflectors quickly burned away in a spectacular whoosh of 50-foot-high flames.
City officials are now urging residents not to drink city water until it’s passed inspection by state water-quality labs, a process that could take a few days to a week. KOZI Radio in Chelan provides frequent updates on the town’s power and water situations.
City Clerk-Treasurer Kerrie Wilson said she’ll be staffing city hall from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. through the duration of the fire crisis. She’ll be accepting donations of bottled water and food, mostly fresh fruit and ready-to-eat packaged items. “We don’t have power, so we don’t have refrigeration,” she said. “Packaged stuff is best.”
Up the hill from city hall, Patrick Poore seemed to be on an impossible search. Determined, he sifted through the burned remnants — twisted metal, melted glass and plastic — of his brother-in-law’s single-wide mobile home for an engagement ring. He hadn’t found it after a half-hour’s search, but kept digging.
A few blocks away, Josh Sutherland and Kelsey Verbeck dug through the debris of their rented modular home in hopes of finding a fireproof safe box holding car titles, birth certificates, social security cards and other items.
Sutherland dug first in the living room, then the dining room, then the bathroom, with no luck. He tossed aside burned-out appliances as he moved between the home’s support girders, exposed when the floor burned away.
“The fire moved so fast,” said Verbeck. “We saw it up on the ridge and couldn’t believe how fast it moved. So did we — we moved fast, too.”
Nearby, Dawn Ericson and friends hooked a chain to the back of a pickup truck and dragged a fire-ravaged safe from the rubble of Ericson’s apartment building. They wrenched the safe open to find a bracelet and a small ceramic vase, completely untouch by the fire.
“When we saw the fire coming,” said Ericson, “I grabbed the most important thing — my grandmother’s old watch. I had to save it. It only ticks when I put it on.”
Sharron Keniston’s home was spared. She stood staring 30 feet beyond her back door to the scorched remains of a mobile home park where a dozen structures had been razed. The flames got so hot they ignited her garden shed and melted her home’s plastic window frames, but the house didn’t burn.
“I really don’t know why my home was spared,” she said, tears in her eyes. “I ran a sprinkler on the back lawn, so that may have had something to do with it. But mostly I was lucky.”
She wiped her eyes. “I was blessed, really blessed.”
On nearby Alta Lake Road, fire swept through a narrow saddle to destroy acres of forest and up to 40 homes around a golf course development. A handful of residents returned Friday afternoon to survey the damage.
Neighbors and longtime friends Nellie Webber and Debbie Hoover stood between their incinerated homes and wept. More friends arrived, tears flowed and the grief-stricken women moved into a group hug.
“Why would this happen here? Why?” Webber asked. “It’s all gone. We lost everything.”