BREWSTER — One farmworker described being awoken in the middle of the night and told to grab a blanket and his important documents. Another showed photos he took of flames cresting a hill behind their communal housing.
The Cold Springs and Pearl Hill fires were bearing down on Bridgeport Monday night and, in a normal year, these migrant farmworkers would have been evacuated to a nearby Red Cross shelter.
But concerns about communal sleeping in the pandemic, persistent power outages and the emergency unfolding across the region meant there was no official shelter available. Instead the farmworkers were among hundreds of evacuees who fled to a park in Brewster, where they slept for the night.
“It would have totally been different, we would have had a physical shelter set up if it wasn’t for COVID requirements,” said Maurice Goodall with Okanogan County Emergency Management.
But during the pandemic, traditional communal shelters are a last resort for the Red Cross. Instead the organization strongly prioritizes providing people with vouchers to stay in hotel rooms, spokeswoman Betsy Robertson said.
Coordinating with local officials, the Red Cross spent Monday trying to find a suitable hotel. Those plans fell through and a communal shelter — the only one in the state — was finally opened in Brewster late Tuesday evening.
“Ensuring that people have a safe place to stay during a disaster is a critical part of our mission. That includes safety on all fronts, safety from the fire, safety from the pandemic — we just want to make sure that if we are hosting people in our care that we are doing the very best service we possibly can for them,” Robertson said.
“In this environment we are going to prioritize, whenever possible, individual hotel rooms or dormitory-style rooms to ensure that safety. When those options were finally exhausted, we opened the shelter as quickly as possible.”
The Cold Springs Fire started in Okanogan County late Sunday and jumped the Columbia River on Monday morning, starting the Pearl Hill Fire.
Evacuations were already in place and just after 4 p.m. Monday the Brewster School District contacted the Red Cross asking to set up a shelter at its high school, Robertson said.
“At that time we explained that the Red Cross position right now is that we are prioritizing individual hotel rooms or dormitory-style rooms to make sure that people have a safe place to stay,” she said. “That’s for the safety of evacuees, as well as the safety of any volunteer workers in the pandemic environment.”
First the organization looked to Wenatchee, where there was already a hotel accepting evacuees with Red Cross vouchers, Robertson said.
“It was clear that they were not happy with that idea of traveling that far,” she said. “And so we started working with emergency management and the county to figure out ‘What is another alternative?’ The idea was to look at hotels either in Omak or the city of Okanogan. As the process started, that’s when the power went out and put a pause on the effort.”
By Monday evening more evacuation notices were issued and people from the Bridgeport area traveled into Okanogan County. They kept arriving through the night, most headed to Brewster and a few to Pateros, said Goodall with Okanogan County Emergency Management.
He estimates around 300 people — both farmworkers and other community members — ended up in a park across from Brewster High School that night. By 6:30 a.m. Tuesday the temperature in Brewster dropped to a low of 47, according to the National Weather Service.
Brewster’s mayor called him Tuesday morning to tell him about the evacuees. Working with several community groups, they quickly organized for food to be brought to the park. A centralized donation drop-off and pick-up is still operating there.
Goodall also went back to the Red Cross.
“So, we requested (the shelter) and we kind of had to go up the chain a little bit. We had to figure it out with the Red Cross, they held a meeting, and we said ‘We need this. We know there are COVID issues but we have to meet it,’” he said. “.... I was talking to them the day before but we were really pushing on them on Tuesday. And they got it open.”
Red Cross workers arrived around 6 p.m. Tuesday and opened the shelter later that night, Robertson said.
The delayed opening has drawn criticism from some community members, Goodall said.
“We dealt with it. This probably wasn’t as quick as most people would like to have, but they need to understand that emergencies are emergencies and you got to deal with things,” he said. “We don’t have a crystal ball to say ‘This is going to happen.’ Yes, the fire had been burning for a couple days but things change. When we saw the need we asked for it, we got it, but it took a little bit.”
Even as the shelter was being set up, many farmworkers still in the park Tuesday were uncertain where they would sleep that night, said Erandy Montiel, a Brewster resident and farmworker advocate who visited them in the park Tuesday evening.
“There were like nine or 10 buses and crowds and crowds of workers. You could just see them pushing and shoving because I think some people were bringing blankets,” she said. “… They said they had spent the night prior to that at the park with no shelter and they pretty much were cold all night because they didn’t have any blankets or anything that was provided for them. At the time they didn’t even know if they were going to have shelter.”
Throughout the day Tuesday, many evacuees were able to find other places to stay, but a core group of 91 migrant workers remained. They were from Highland Orchards in Bridgeport, the farmworkers and Red Cross staff members said. The company declined to comment for this story.
While the Red Cross served 400 meals on Tuesday night, the 91 workers were the only people who slept in the shelter that night. They stayed again Wednesday night.
Their residences near Bridgeport were still under an evacuation notice Wednesday evening and much of the town was without power, said Shelter Manager Cheryl Provorse.
“We don’t know how long we’re going to be here, it all depends on how long they’re evacuated for,” she said.
Many of the farmworkers returned to the orchards to work under smoky skies Wednesday. That night they arrived back at the shelter around 6:30 p.m. Each is screened by a Red Cross nurse for COVID-19 symptoms before being allowed to enter.
As they arrived, they picked up a hot meal and stretched their legs before heading into the high school’s gym to find a cot for the night.
EAST WENATCHEE — A man is said to have shoplifted. An officer responds. The man, now a suspect, arms himself with baseball-sized rock. The officer holsters his Taser and draws a firearm. The suspect puts down the rock and flees. The officer pursues and arrests the man without harm.
That’s the kind of story East Wenatchee Police Chief Rick Johnson wants you to know about: the hectic scenario that doesn’t typically receive much attention because no one was shot or injured.
In what he described as a push for increased transparency, Johnson provided The Wenatchee World with body camera footage of that particular Aug. 28 arrest by Officer Josh Caballero as an example of a tense incident that went well.
“We release not only incidents that had a negative result but we want to push out the ones where it could’ve been a bad result, but due to trainings and tactics and decisions that were made we had a good result,” Johnson said.
Johnson started as the department’s new chief in June. Among his early changes to the department was a requirement to wear body cameras. Previously, the department had 10 body cameras but use was not mandatory.
East Wenatchee City Council on Aug. 18 approved a 5-year, $90,000 lease agreement with Axon Enterprises for 19 body cameras. They’re expected to arrive in 45 to 60 days. The department has 20 officers, though only 16 work in patrol.
Of body cameras, Johnson said, “I think it’s a huge tool for not only evidence collection but clearing officers of complaints or sustaining allegations made by the public — it’s one of the best tools for that.”
His department is one in transition.
Last year, the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs conducted a review of the department after East Wenatchee officers voted no confidence in longtime Chief Randy Harrison and Assistant Chief Ray Coble.
A subsequent report from WASPC recommended the department institute 108 policy changes, including its inconsistent use of body cameras.
Harrison retired at the end of 2019 and Coble voluntarily resigned in July.
Johnson’s push for transparency is in part an effort to rebuild the department’s reputation, as well as a way of showing the public what day-to-day police work is like.
“We are trying to improve our relationship, which it’s pretty good,” Johnson said. “We have a lot of support from the community already. But yeah, we are looking at ways to improve public trust, improve transparency.”
Figuring out what more transparency looks like is a work in progress. Washington voters in 2018 passed Initiative 940, which requires law enforcement officers to take part in more de-escalation training, but also mandates a non-law enforcement member participation in use-of-force investigations.
In addition to body cameras, the department created an Instagram account earlier this summer that features a mix of public safety messages, breaking news and updates on the department.
“We’re all trying to navigate exactly what increased transparency looks like,” Johnson said. “We got the national narrative of whether it’s defund the police or increased transparency … as law enforcement, we’re like, ‘OK what does that look like? What are you looking for?’”
The department is also working with Eastmont High School to design a decal on a hybrid police vehicle. The decal would include a landscape of East Wenatchee and the Eastmont logo, he said.
“We want people to take ownership in their police department because the police department is a direct reflection of your city or of the community that they’re in and we want people to take ownership of the East Wenatchee Police Department and recognize that we are their police department, we do work for them,” Johnson said.
Incidents like Officer Caballero’s run-in with a shoplifter aren’t uncommon, Johnson said, but typically go unreported.
“I think it’s a good example of this isn’t something they deal with every day, but it is something they deal with regularly, not just in our area, but all across the country and it has a positive result that everyone is OK with what happened,” Johnson said.
“And those, of course, you don’t hear about but the officers are operating under limited information, having to make decisions in split seconds then, of course, being judged for the decisions they make where everybody has all the time in the world to watch the video and come up with what would have been best.”
As for the shoplifter, the store owners elected not to press charges against the suspect, though he was ordered not to return.
OKANOGAN — A 1-year-old boy has died and his parents were flown to Harborview Medical Center after suffering burns while fleeing the Cold Springs Fire on Tuesday.
Jacob Hyland, 31, of Renton, and Jamie Hyland, 26, of Renton, were leaving their property in the Cameron Lake and Paxton Canyon roads area as the fire closed in, according to an Okanogan County Sheriff’s Department news release Wednesday afternoon.
Jacob and Jamie were found burned and their 1-year-old child was dead, according to the news release. Jacob and Jamie were flown to Harborview Medical Center were they are still in critical condition as of Thursday morning and being cared for by burn specialists, said Susan Gregg, a Harborview spokesperson.
On Tuesday, people went to locate the family and found their burnt vehicle.
Okanogan County Search and Rescue personnel began looking for the family and on Wednesday at 9:56 a.m. all three were located by a state Department of Natural Resource boat along a bank of the Columbia River, according to the news release and Okanogan County Sheriff Tony Hawley.
The cause of the Cold Springs Fire is under investigation, according to the news release.
A GoFundMe account, wwrld.us/3bMtmwn, has been setup for the family. It has accumulated more than $90,000 in 21 hours.
NCW — The Pearl Hill Fire destroyed 17 homes and 35 outbuildings while burning nearly 180,000 acres in Douglas County, authorities say.
The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office completed a survey of the damage Wednesday, said fire spokesman Rick Acosta with Northwest Incident Management Team 6. It found 17 homes, one residential/commercial building, two commercial buildings and 35 outbuildings were consumed by the Labor Day fire.
Acosta said this morning that the fire was 41% contained at 177,605 acres. The most active part of the fire is the northwest portion, west of Bridgeport and the Columbia River.
Evacuation levels were dropped in some areas, as well. Bridgeport and McNeil Canyon were previously under a Level 3 notice — leave now — but are now under Level 2 — be ready to leave. All areas south of Highway 2 are at Level 1 — be aware.
Firefighters are trying to limit the fire spread toward the south and constructing a fire line from Dyer Hill west to the Columbia River, Acosta said. They are continuing to mop up and look for hotspots.
As of this morning, the Cold Springs Fire in Okanogan County was about 10% contained at 163,000 acres and had about 275 firefighters assigned to it, according to the Northwest Washington Interagency Incident Management Team.
As for the Apple Acres Fire in the Chelan area, Acosta said this morning that it had reached 5,880 acres and was about 45% contained.
Earlier estimates from Chelan Fire and Rescue had it listed at about 75% contained. However, new estimates from Northwest Incident Management Team 6 came from better mapping and using GPS on the ground.
The cause is under investigation, Acosta said. Level 2 evacuation notices have been dropped to Level 1, and Level 1 evacuations have been canceled.
Acosta said today’s weather is expected to be similar to Wednesday’s, though about 5 degrees warmer with light easterly winds. Dry conditions are expected, with low relative humidity of 15-20%.
The Washington Smoke Blog reported this morning that air quality was unhealthy in Wenatchee, Leavenworth, Chelan and Omak; unhealthy for sensitive groups in Quincy and Winthrop; and moderate in Twisp.