OMAK — The Cold Springs Fire that started near Omak on Sept. 6 has destroyed approximately 78 homes and 60 outbuildings, according to a Wednesday morning report by the Northeast Washington Interagency Incident Management Team. The 188,852-acre fire is 70% contained.
Team spokesman Don Malone said many rural homes have burned throughout the footprint of the fire. Damage is spread out “all over.” The Red Cross is helping those who have been displaced due to the fire, he said.
Fire crews are patrolling and looking for any remaining hot spots threatening containment lines, according to the report. Roughly 280 firefighters, both local and regional, are assigned to the fire.
The Okanogan County Sheriff’s Office continues to investigate the death of 1-year-old boy and injury of his parents found within the Cold Springs Fire perimeter on Sept. 9. The family is from Renton.
Further south, supervision of the Pearl Hill Fire, now considered 94% contained, will be transferred Wednesday to a smaller incident management team. The North Douglas County fire burned several homes in Bridgeport, causing citywide evacuations.
The Northwest Incident Management Team 6 oversaw operations on the Pearl Hill Fire in Bridgeport, as well as the Apple Acres Fire in Chelan, which is 99% contained, the team said Tuesday in a news release.
The Pearl Hill Fire burned 233,730 acres, while the Apple Acres burned 5,753 acres.
A Type 3 incident management team was scheduled to take over the Pearl Hill Fire Wednesday morning and an even smaller Type 4 team, comprised of members of the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and state Department of Natural Resources, will assume command of the Chelan fire.
The public can expect interior pockets to continue to burn even after the fires are completely contained, the news release said. Smoke may become more visible as weather conditions change, but smoke from within the fire’s footprint is not expected to cause harm.
Crews are working to mop up hot spots near structures and within at least 100 feet of the fire perimeter, the release said.
LEAVENWORTH — J.J. the stallion is on his last leg.
The 18-year-old horse can barely walk, holding up his injured front left hoof and limping on the remaining untrimmed three. His previous owner couldn’t afford a vet bill, and had to decide whether to put J.J. down or find him a new home. Before he arrived at Refuge River Ranch in Leavenworth, owner Jodiek Pratt was warned: This horse is mean.
“I thought, ‘Oh, great, what is coming to my house?’” Pratt said.
Once at the ranch, though, J.J. softened.
“You can just put your head right on his head and he will just love on you,” Pratt said. “There is not a mean bone in his body.”
J.J. is just one of the 94 rescue animals at Refuge River Ranch, alongside kittens, chickens, goats and a 500-pound pig named Big Mama.
“I’m the kind of person that always roots for the underdog,” Pratt said. “I have a heart for the little guy, and I’m one of those little guys.”
Refuge River Ranch started as a short-term rental location, but Pratt found herself spending a majority of her time offering tours of the rescue animals to renters. After offering a few tours, Pratt realized she could turn her everyday life into a new business venture. Now, she worries about keeping the business afloat.
Small, family-operated farms like hers have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent agriculture restrictions, including Gov. Jay Inslee’s most recent restrictions on agritourism. Out of 35,793 farms in Washington, 95% are owned by a producer’s household or extended family, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
During a time when most businesses are consolidating, Refuge River Ranch finds itself growing. People who could no longer afford to care for their animals started contacting Pratt, who found it hard to turn away an animal in need.
“I’m a bit of a sucker when it comes to injured or hurt things,” said Pratt. “As much as I shouldn’t be taking them in, I was taking them in in the middle of the shutdown.”
She officially added animal tours to the business in October, not knowing six months later business, operated by Pratt and volunteers, would come to a halt. After a short reopening at 25% capacity in June, Refuge River Ranch now has to close their doors again under Inslee’s new agritourism guidelines.
“I wasn’t just ready to give up and die,” Pratt said. “But, I was getting scared.”
On Aug. 28, the state revised agritourism rules for counties in Phase 2 and 3 but provided no clarification for those in modified Phase 1, leaving Chelan, Douglas, Benton, Franklin and Yakima counties in limbo. After discussions with the Washington Farm Bureau and a Senate ag-related committee, new rules were established for modified Phase 1. The only agritourism activities allowed for modified Phase 1 are:
The guidelines do not permit outdoor corn mazes, hayrides or rides of any kind, animal viewing, playground equipment or firepits, according to the Washington Farm Bureau.
“We were really discouraged by that,” said Tom Davis, director of government relations with the Washington Farm Bureau. “We’re concerned about whether those operations in those five counties are going to survive.”
The updated agritourism requirements are part of the governor’s Safe Start reopening plan. As of Aug. 4, Inslee extended the freeze indefinitely, prohibiting any county from advancing to a new stage of the four-phase plan.
“Agritourism is farming in this state,” Davis said. “We felt there was a way to mitigate these health concerns like in Phase 2 and 3 and we just weren’t given that chance.”
Christmas is over three months away, but Leavenworth Reindeer Farm is already making their list for Santa.
“That is the biggest time of the year for us,” said Erika Andersen, general manager and daughter of owners Kari and Hans Andersen. “We’re really crossing our fingers and sending our wish into Santa to be open for the holidays.”
Leavenworth Reindeer Farm closed their doors for the first time this year in March, when the initial Stay Home, Stay Healthy mandate took effect. They reopened for roughly six weeks while under modified Phase 1 before the updated agritourism guidelines prohibited animal viewing.
“You can’t pet or view animals, which made it impossible for us to do business,” said Andersen. “Kind of the whole point in coming would be to pet and feed the reindeer.”
After the updated regulations, the reindeer farm had to get innovative with business ideas. They started an adopt-a-reindeer promotion where donors could “adopt” one of the farm’s reindeers to help pay for medical supplies. All 17 reindeer were adopted in less than an hour of the promotion going live.
Both Leavenworth Reindeer Farm and Refuge River Ranch started GoFundMe pages after learning of the updated guidelines. The Leavenworth Reindeer Farm has already raised over $12,000, enough to cover a month of operating costs. Refuge River Ranch has raised over $46,000 to continue care for its 96 animals.
Even if Refuge River Ranch reaches its goal of $50,000, it’s only enough for the farm to break even from losses due to the shutdown, according to Pratt.
“If we reach that $50 (thousand), that will cover the deficit of the first shutdown,” Pratt said. “We’re not quite there yet, but enough that I can breathe now.”
While other businesses like retail might be more equipped to close shop and wait to weather the storm of the pandemic, farm owners fare worse. Farms still accrue expenses for animal care while being closed to the public and require labor for upkeep. As rescues, animals at Refuge River Ranch need extra care such as special food, minerals and vet visits, according to Pratt.
“I can’t turn off the lights and electricity and walk away,” Pratt said. “I have all these animals that their care still needs to take place.”
While some farms had to close entirely, others saw their revenue cut in half. Smallwood’s Harvest in Peshastin is able to keep its indoor storefront open to the public but under the new mandate must prohibit all outdoor activity. This includes the business’s bounce pads, train rides and hay rides, along with an animal farm now locked off from viewing.
“As soon as I see a family with kids, I feel bad inside having to turn them down,” manager Juan Mendez said.
Roughly 40% of customers that visit Smallwood’s in a day come to view the animals, according to Mendez. He said 15 to 20 families a day stop by asking to see the farm animals.
Fall is harvest time and often when family farms can have their busiest season of the year. While customers can still u-pick pumpkins, with fall activities like mazes, hay rides and petting zoos canceled, some farms worry it won’t be enough to entice customers. Most chain grocery stores also offer pumpkins and fall gourds.
“This is the one time of year where those family farmers make the money that keeps these family farms operating,” Davis said.
For some farms in Chelan and Douglas counties, the rules seem too strict. In the time Leavenworth Reindeer Farm was open, face masks were required, one-way walkways were enforced and tours were only offered by appointment.
“If you can walk around Walmart, you should be able to take your family to the farm,” Andersen said.
The main concern for the farms, though, is continuing to have the resources to care for the animals. For Pratt and Refuge River Ranch, closing would mean having to find already displaced animals new homes again.
“The biggest thing is just to keep these animals healthy, happy and well,” Pratt said. “This is our livelihood. It’s not only my passion but also my business.”
BREWSTER — When Brewster resident Erandy Montiel heard during the wildfires early last week that a large group of farmworkers had been evacuated to a city park, she went with her mom to see if they could help. Her father, Francisco Montiel, was a farmworker who died of COVID-19 in August, and she has been advocating for more protections for those in the fields and warehouses.
“It broke our hearts,” she said of what she saw last Tuesday evening.
The men she met — foreign guest workers from a labor camp run by a Bridgeport orchard — told Montiel they had spent a cold night without blankets, some in buses lining the park and some outside.
Montiel’s mom runs a small business selling blankets, among other items, and they ran home to get them and bring them back. A bevy of other community members and the Red Cross also swooped in, providing food and shelter.
But the delay underscored the vulnerability of farmworkers, including those from other countries without any local support system, amid frighteningly fast-moving fires hitting during the apple harvest.
Farmworkers are more exposed to the hazards of wildfires than many. Smoke surrounds those who work outside and can create what Edgar Franks, political director of the farmworker union Familias Unidas por la Justicia, calls a greenhouse effect, making the already hot Eastern Washington climate feel even hotter. Farmworkers already have a higher incidence of respiratory diseases like asthma and tuberculosis.
The state Department of Labor & Industries (L&I) requires employers to provide a safe place to work but has no specific regulations related to wildfires, according to spokesman Tim Church. Nonmandatory recommendations include rescheduling work and moving it to less smoky areas.
Wildfires can also be devastating for agricultural employers. One Okanogan County rancher, directly in the path of the massive Cold Springs and Pearl Hill fires that began in Omak, lost at least 20 to 30 cows, 100 miles of fencing and 2,500 tons of hay stored to feed his cattle over the winter. Days later, he was riding around his 30,000 acres looking for injured and dead cows.
“We’ve had fires before but nothing like this,” said the rancher, Dale Smith.
Complicating everything is COVID-19.
“This is the crisis within a crisis,” said Andrea Schmitt, an attorney at Columbia Legal Services who has been advocating for farmworkers during the pandemic.
As fires headed toward Bridgeport last week, an evacuation order sent people fleeing. Some didn’t go far. Gebbers Farms, which has two labor camps in the area, took workers from one camp housing more than 100 workers to the other about a half-mile away, said spokeswoman Amy Philpott. It was safer there, she said.
That option wasn’t available for the farmworkers who landed in a park in Brewster.
The Red Cross, which in the past has set up shelters in Brewster High School near the park where the evacuees arrived, has since the pandemic been relying on hotels rather than large, one-room shelters, said spokeswoman Betsy Robertson. She said the organization let local officials know it had hotel rooms available in Wenatchee, about 70 miles away.
Downed power lines and closed roads made it tough to execute that plan, Robertson said.
At the request of local officials, the Red Cross set up a traditional shelter in the high school last Tuesday evening, spacing cots 6 feet apart in the gym, according to Robertson. Ninety-one people stayed there that night.
In the morning, a bus picked them up and took them to work, Robertson said. The same number came back for the next several nights, returning to their regular housing after dinner on Saturday.
Businesses from around the region donated meals, including a Brewster bakery and a Wenatchee Mexican restaurant, according to Sandra Zumudio, a Brewster resident who helped coordinate them.
Between 100 and 200 others also ate last week at the shelter, which closed over the weekend. Robertson did not know if those were farmworkers. Brewster has seen evacuees from the wider community, according to Okanogan County Emergency Management Director Maurice Goodall.
As well as sending people into a group shelter, the wildfires have made guarding against COVID-19 more difficult in another way, noted Schmitt of Columbia Legal Services. Ventilation is crucial indoors, where the virus spreads more easily. Yet, when the air is toxic, you shouldn’t open windows.
There is one helpful byproduct of the pandemic. “At least now, workers have access to masks,” said Franks, of Familias Unidas por la Justicia. State rules require employers to provide them at no cost.
Franks said he remains concerned, however, that the kind of masks most workers have, cloth or single-use ones, don’t offer the best protection against smoke.
L&I is not recommending N95 masks, which if fitted correctly filter out tiny soot particles, because they are needed by health professionals working on the pandemic’s front line. Agency guidance noted some workers may ask to wear dust or KN95 masks, considered better at filtering particles than cloth but not as much as N95.
Gebbers Farms, one of the state’s largest agricultural employers, gave out KN95 masks with paychecks to its 2,500 guest workers Friday, according to Philpott. She wasn’t sure if Gebbers’ domestic workers got KN95 Friday, too, but said they are available.
Zaira Sanchez, emergency relief coordinator for the northwest branch of the UFW Foundation, a sister organization to the farmworker union, said her organization has been able to get thousands of coveted N95 masks despite being in short supply, and is in the process of giving them out to farmworkers throughout the area.
Sanchez has also been visiting workers to see how they are doing during the wildfires. Three men she met in Yakima, guest workers from Mexico, said by phone they had been buying their own masks — like semi-ski masks you can pull up to your eyes — because the cloth masks provided by their employers are uncomfortable and don’t provide as much coverage.
Still, said the three workers, speaking in Spanish while Sanchez interpreted, the smoke sometimes irritates their eyes and noses. When that happens, they sometimes want to stop work, they said, but have been told they can only take their regularly scheduled breaks.
In addition to shortening hours, some employers have called off work for a day or more because of smoky conditions, said Jon DeVaney, president of the Washington State Tree Fruit Association.
“A lot of that depends on exactly where the growers are, and where they are in their harvest cycle,” he said. “Our apple harvest starts in August and goes into November. So different people are picking different varieties at different times. If you’re trying to do harvest now while conditions are really smoky then you have serious concerns about how to keep your workers safe.”
Property damage is not as big a concern for orchard owners because fields of green trees are usually irrigated. “They tend not to burn completely,” he said, although “you might get a row of trees on the edge scorched.”
Ranches, with their pastureland, are a different story.
Smith, whose 100-year-old, 30,000-acre ranch is on the Colville Indian Reservation, near the town of Monse, was in Montana visiting a son last Sunday when he got a 10 p.m. call about a raging fire on the way. It didn’t look good. Winds were blowing 30 to 40 mph, he heard.
“We jumped in our rig and headed out,” he recalled.
They drove 11 hours and pulled in about noon the next day. “The fire had not quite got to our ranch headquarters,” he said. But some 30 people from the agricultural community and beyond had gotten there to help the fire department, knowing Smith’s ranch was in the eye of the storm.
“Our vet was here. He was on his hands and knees clearing brush,” Smith said. “And he had just had back surgery six months ago.” Others brought bulldozers to create fire lines, one brought a generator to get a water pump going because power was out.
Seeing his friends and neighbors stand behind him, he said, “was really emotional.”
They got fire lines around the ranch’s handful of buildings and its haystacks composed of 1,300-pound bales. They saved the buildings but not the hay, set ablaze by embers blowing from a half-mile away.
Between the hay and the fencing, the destruction will cost Smith dearly, he said. He ticked off some figures that add up to more than a half-million dollars.
“The worst part of it is, after a fire like this burns so hot, you can’t really pasture it much the next year. So you’re affected for two to three years.”