WENATCHEE — Sitting in his usual spot in Riverfront Park on Monday, Darrell Gann could hardly make out trees across the Columbia River. “This spot is beautiful on a sunny day,” he said.
Gann’s view was obscured by persistent wildfire smoke that has settled into the Wenatchee Valley and is expected to remain at least through Friday.
It’s created one of Wenatchee’s worst periods of poor air quality in over a decade.
Saturday and Sunday accounted for two of the five worst 24-hour stretches of air quality since 2007, according to data from the state Department of Ecology. The other three days were recorded during peak fire seasons in 2012, 2017 and 2018.
Most of the smoke in North Central Washington is being funneled in by southerly winds, said Charlotte Dewey, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Spokane.
“A lot of the smoke is coming in from Oregon and Northern California,” she said. “With the winds coming out of the southwest, anything upstream from us in the southwest is being pulled in. We do have effects from our local fires near Omak and areas just west of Spokane.”
Meteorologists had hoped a weather system coming into the state Monday would offer some relief. But the smoke remained and the next opportunity for favorable weather isn’t expected until Friday, Dewey said.
“We are looking at a potential weather system to move through Friday and into the weekend that should bring some precipitation and a little stronger winds to help mix out some of the poor air quality and the smoke,” she said.
The Department of Ecology’s air quality alert for the area was extended until noon Friday. Residents are advised to limit outdoor activity until then, according to the alert.
North Central Washington may notice some change in conditions during the week, but it’s not expected to be significant, Dewey said.
“We’re not going to see a whole lot of improvement over the next couple days,” she said. “It may be a little bit better during the day, just enough to where you could see a little difference. I don’t know that you’ll see enough of a difference to tell that the air quality has improved a lot.”
The hourly readings from a weather station on Fifth Street in Wenatchee grew slightly worse throughout Monday. By the afternoon the air quality was hovering around 380 on the index — well above hazardous. It remained high overnight before improving to 271.7 early Tuesday morning.
The air quality canceled some of the few events Monday that weren’t already postponed due to the pandemic, including NCW Libraries’ planned resumption of curbside service.
It also left many of Wenatchee’s parks and public spaces quiet Monday afternoon. But a few braved the smoke to get outdoors.
Dave Stender worked his metal detector across the grass of Triangle Park, looking for lost treasures. It’s valued quiet time, he said as he continued off into the haze. Across the street, a pair of kids hopped on a backyard trampoline.
For Gann, the man sitting in Riverfront Park, there were few other options.
Gann has lived in Gospel House, a shelter for people experiencing homelessness, for the past two years. After leaving the shelter in the morning he often heads to the park and waits for it to reopen in the evening, stopping for breakfast and dinner at Lighthouse Ministries.
“This is the only place I really have to hang out,” he said of the park.
Monday was no different, despite the smoke. Gann arrived at the park around 8 a.m. and was still there by 3:30 p.m. He planned to stay a couple more hours before heading back to the shelter.
Around him the park was nearly empty, save for a worker mowing grass and a couple people who ventured out for a walk.
Gann said he has asthma but hasn’t been too bothered by the air quality. Per the state mandate, he has a mask for visiting stores and going indoors, but wasn’t wearing it in the park Monday.
“The smoke just doesn’t seem to bother me too bad,” he said.
OKANOGAN — The fair was supposed to happen last week in Okanogan County, fairgrounds manager Naomie Peasley said, but instead the fairgrounds became the headquarters for the Cold Springs Fire relief effort.
The fair was already canceled this year, due to COVID-19, Peasley said. However, county officials were still holding an online auction for animals raised by 125 4-H kids. They decided to extend it a week, because of the fires.
“It’s super sad, because these kids are definitely forgotten about right now,” she said. “There’s no bidding going on right now, so we have 125 kids who spent all year long preparing their fair animals.”
Over the last week, Peasley has been managing aid efforts from a tiny office at the Okanogan County Fairgrounds with a hands-free telephone headset on and a white board behind her listing where bales of hay are headed.
Tons of hay have been trucked into the fairground, 5-foot stacks of animal feed and fencing donated. Veterinarians have also donated their time to take care of burned or sick animals.
About eight horses were at the fairgrounds on Saturday, but many more animals had been there throughout the week, Peasley said, and veterinarians cared for their burns and other injuries.
“The first day alone, we had 43 dogs, seven cats, two donkeys, we had 25 horses and a goat,” Peasley said.
It’s been an all-hands-on-deck effort since the fire broke out on Sept. 6, she said. Ranchers are working together to put up fencing to prevent livestock from wandering onto highways and cowboys are slowly starting to round up and return people’s cattle.
“I just talked to a rancher today and he hauled 90 of somebody else’s cattle back to their place and then went back and there were 30 more head of somebody else’s,” Peasley said.
Debbie Nuehrig was one of the people whose horses were still at the fairgrounds on Saturday and receiving medical treatment. Her three horses were severely burned with one mare missing a large piece of skin on her right front leg. She had seven horses, but four died in the fire.
Some people wanted Nuehrig to euthanize her remaining three horses, she said.
“But they had a will to want to live and because they do, I feel I need to see them through this journey,” Nuehrig said.
This is the second wildfire that Nuehrig has been through, she said. Last time, she rebuilt the barn that burned down during the Virginia Lake Fire in 2001 in the same spot and Cold Springs Fire took out the new barn.
“But this time, I’m 68 years old and by myself and this has been a severe test of my pioneer spirit and I honestly can’t say if it’s finally broken,” Nuehrig said.
People have been donating hay to Okanogan County from all over the country, said Molly Hendrick, of Ephrata. Hendrick grew up in Mansfield and wanted to help friends and family affected by the fire.
People have been hauling in hay from Tennessee and Kalispell, Montana, Hendrick said.
The livestock don’t have anything else to eat now that the fire has burned all the pasture, said Mike Stansbury, of Oroville.
Employees with Walden Cannabis, of Malott, were helping pull the hay off of trucks and redistribute it. The cannabis company’s 13 to 14 employees had been there all week helping out, Cannabis Farm Manager Brian Sheehan said.
The company is between harvests right now, which is why they are able to donate their time, Sheehan said.
The hay is great for now, but the real question is what is going to happen next year, Peasley said. The ground is scorched and it will take a while for the grasses to regrow
“You need to make sure the natural grasses return before you graze it all,” Peasley said. “So how long is it going to be before they can even have these ranch units back and where will they go in the meantime?”
OKANOGAN — Investigators haven’t said whether they believe the Cold Springs Fire was an accident or arson. But Okanogan County Sheriff Tony Hawley says he’s pretty sure of one thing: It wasn’t started by antifa members.
There are many rumors about how the fire started Sept. 6, the sheriff said Saturday.
People have claimed to see a car driving away from the site where it started or have said that antifa started the fire.
“There are plenty of people out there, I’m hearing, that they’re presenting information like they saw something. And when you start going, (they’re like), ‘Oh no, so-and-so told me who heard it from so-and-so,’” Hawley said.
Hawley said he has not seen any social media videos or pictures of anyone starting the fire. If it existed, he’s fairly certain he’d have seen it by now. But anyone with information should contact the Sheriff’s Office at (509) 422-7200.
“If somebody does have that and you talked to someone, we’d be more than happy to have them come talk to us and show us that video,” Hawley said.
It is unlikely that members of antifa started the fire, he said. For one thing, terrorist organizations usually claim ownership, which no one has, he said. And Okanogan County is not exactly a prime target, he added.
“The bang for your buck for terrorism, in Okanogan County I don’t think you’re quite getting that,” Hawley said. “It disrupts our community, but you’re not disrupting a national scene.”
The sheriff said investigators are collecting evidence into the death of Jamie and Jacob Hyland’s son, in case the cause of the fire is determined and it turns into a criminal case. Detectives can’t go back and reassess the scene if it does turn out to be arson, he said.
The Sheriff’s Office does not have anyone in custody in connection to the wildfire and the investigation is continuing, he said.
“We’re still just starting into this investigation, collecting the information we can from the scene where the family was injured,” Hawley said.
The state Department of Natural Resources is leading the investigation into the cause of the fire and the Sheriff’s Office and Colville Tribal Police are working with them.
EAST WENATCHEE — Eastmont School District officials say the remote start to the school year has been a vast improvement over last spring, though it’s definitely not ideal.
“We are much better than we were,” Spencer Taylor, the district’s executive director of elementary education, told Eastmont School Board members during Monday’s meeting. “Teachers had more time to learn the tools. We have clearer expectations about what is doable for staff and for kids. In the spring, it was all over the board.”
Some teachers in the spring were trying to continue like a normal classroom, with students on screens for six hours a day.
“That wasn’t successful,” he said. “Now we have found a sweet spot,” offering a mix of real-time instruction and off-screen activities. It also includes flexibility to meet scheduling hiccups, with recorded classroom sessions that students can watch if they can’t attend the live session because of family schedules.
“We are getting better every week,” he said. “We still have some challenges with technology, with dropped Google Meet sessions.”
The district has worked to increase bandwidth to improve classroom connections and is still rolling out new teacher computers and monitors.
“I watched kindergarten teachers working with students remotely,” he said. “If you can imagine, trying to teach the letter names and what sounds do they make? The kids were bouncing up and down. It’s definitely a challenge. But we are so much more effective than we were in the spring.”
The district will continue to hone the remote learning techniques and technology, but the ultimate goal is to return to the classrooms.
“We are doing well, but nothing will replace face-to-face learning,” he said.
Assistant Superintendent Matt Charlton, who directs secondary education, said he is seeing similar results with the older students. Everyone, though, is missing face-to-face contact.
Eastmont’s enrollment overall is down — with about 130 students fewer than the 5,906 budgeted, according to the first official count of the year. The largest decline is in kindergarten, with about 94 fewer students than anticipated.
The reason is difficult to pin down with certainty.
“My guess is parents are choosing not to send their students to school until the pandemic subsides,” Superintendent Garn Christensen said.
Other families are opting for a more stable option given the unpredictability of the COVID-19 spread and the rules associated with it.
The district’s virtual academy — year-long online instruction — has 443 students signed up, 318 more than expected.
“Parents are choosing Eastmont Virtual Academy if they prefer the predictability of online rather than knowing they may be off campus, on campus and then possibly off campus,” he said. “Some of these parents may also not want the possible additional exposure if their child has other health conditions.”
The budget impacts of the enrollment drop remain to be seen. Funding is based on an average of nine counts taken throughout the course of the year, so the numbers could climb.
The good news is most students attending are engaged, though precise data is not yet available, school administrators said.
Principals and counselors are going out into neighborhoods, making home visits to students who aren’t signing in, to help work through any challenges. Teachers also now have flex time at the end of the day when they can reach out to parents to problem-solve.
“That’s instrumental in remote construction,” Taylor said.
Christensen said the next challenge is switching gears from remote instruction to face-to-face instruction, which will happen once the COVID-19 case rates decline.
“We’re taking it a week at a time,” he said.