What the Carlton Complex wildfire left behind

I went to the Methow for the Winthrop blues festival. What I found were the stories the Carlton Complex fire left behind.

The 27th Winthrop Rhythm and Blues Festival. It was supposed to be a relaxing weekend and a tourist-driven boon to the economy, bringing thousands of music fans to the little Western-themed town that skirts both the Chewuch and Methow rivers. I was going to meet a group of friends — an annual tradition for the past 10 years.

This year our tradition took on a new tinge.

Since it began on Monday, July 14, the Carlton Complex fire in North Central Washington has burned nearly 250,000 acres — an area that encompasses small towns, lakeside golf communities and numerous ranches and farms and makes it the largest in recorded state history.

The fire, which began as multiple lightning-sparked fires in the Methow Valley, has merged into one massive complex with three incident command centers at its east, south and north ends. Governor Jay Inslee has toured the area and activated the Washington National Guard. Over 2,500 personnel are fighting the fire on multiple fronts.

On Thursday night, as the fire raced toward Pateros, I received a text message from a longtime, close friend who was planning to meet us for the festival. He and his girlfriend had just moved most of their worldly belongings to his family home in Malott to store before going to England for a year. “Was evacuated. Officially a homeless refugee. Probably won’t make it to Winthrop tomorrow. Will keep you posted.”

Already the fire was four times as big as the city of Seattle. And expected to keep growing.

Approaching Brewster and Pateros on Friday along the Columbia River — a road I’ve driven dozens of times before — the air was heavy. The smoke had been thick in Spokane the past few days, but here, at the source, it was a choking fog. Fire trucks and emergency personnel were all over the road, but it was still open and passable to Pateros. TV news crews were all over, interviewing people, stopping in a store for a cold drink. The fire had come through the night before and was still smoldering along the road, stopped only by the Columbia River.

And then, immediately off Highway 97, there’s this:

 

At least 15 homes in this small neighborhood were gone. Carol Hamshaw’s house went up, as did her daughter’s, the mayor. Seemingly very few things survived in this small neighborhood, although a pool, trailer and, surprisingly, the backyard playhouse of Carol’s granddaughter:

 

A short video illustrates it a little better:

It’s almost impossible not to take some meaning from the fact that the Pateros Community Church survived, while the homes all around it burned, though the presence of an asphalt parking lot surrounding it shows the value of defensible space.

While residents sorted through the remains of their homes — still smoldering — fire was advancing on the other side of the Methow River at the confluence with the Columbia. An Associated Press photographer told me to turn around and look up, as fire reached a house and put up thick, dark smoke. A minute later, two fire trucks raced into town from a staging location to the east and saved the house, at least partially.

 


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