By Marcy Stamper
More than a month after the state’s largest wildfire destroyed hundreds of homes in and around the Methow Valley, homemade signs thanking firefighters still punctuate the landscape.
But in addition to the gratitude, some people have been raising questions about whether fire crews missed early opportunities to keep the fire from getting so big and, ultimately, whether some of those houses could have been saved.
Reconstructing what happened is difficult. As four fires burned, eventually merging into one vast blaze, incident managers were attempting to deal with multiple evacuations and fire crews were arriving from other areas, all amid communication breakdowns.
But conversations with fire chiefs, law enforcement personnel, land-management agencies, and local residents whose property was threatened by the fire, as well as a review of dispatch logs, help sketch an outline of that chaotic week in July.
In the first week of the fires—from Monday, July 14, through Friday, July 18—Okanogan County Sheriff’s dispatch received almost three times the normal volume of calls. From Monday through Wednesday, four dispatch operators handled 400 to 450 calls a day, but by Thursday and Friday, they got more than 1,000 calls, according to Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers.
Rogers himself took 109 calls during the first 15 hours on his personal cell phone, and 511 over the next three days. “That was just me—you can imagine what dispatch was like,” he said.
“It’s like a zoo in there—on the 17th, it was insane,” said Rogers.
By the middle of that week, fire crews from rural fire districts, government agencies and private contractors were arriving from around the state. Not everyone who has raised questions could identify the crews they encountered, but the most pointed questions have been directed at the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
Could small fires have been extinguished?
Despite triple-digit temperatures, critically low humidity and strong winds, the fire could have been controlled before it became so large, some people maintain. “The overlying issue is that those fires should have never gotten this big. There was ample time to put them out,” said Kim Maltais, who lost his house on the Loup.
Methow Valley News reporter Laurelle Walsh was one of several people who spotted a small plume of smoke above the Cougar Flat campground in the hills above Bear Creek on Monday, July 14.
In just three days, the Cougar Flat Fire became an inferno, pushed by strong winds at unprecedented speed in a matter of hours on the way to Pateros, which burned Thursday night.
“I could clearly see a small fire up on a steep ridge. It looked like a Ponderosa pine ablaze along with some underbrush and perhaps a downed log,” wrote Walsh in an account of the incident.
At the Cougar Flat campground, Walsh encountered a DNR truck and a U.S. Forest Service vehicle. Two men in the DNR truck, who were looking at maps and talking on the radio, confirmed the fire was on DNR land and said they were keeping an eye on it. They had radioed for back-up help but said most fire crews were already deployed on fires near Texas Creek and Gold Creek, according to Walsh.
One of the DNR men said the Forest Service employee had gone up the hill to check on the fire, which was not visible from the campground, she said. The DNR man said the fire was close to the top of the ridge and most likely wouldn’t have far to burn.
DNR is responsible for fighting fires on state and private forest land and on other state lands, said Janet Pearce, communications manager for the agency. Agency policy is to suppress all fires under their jurisdiction, but they have to ensure they have adequate support to do it safely, she said.
Jennifer Bammert, wildfire and emergency response coordinator for DNR, said she did not know what had happened at Cougar Flat or why the men appeared to be watching the fire. Their crews would put out a fire if it was safe, she said.
The log of the Central Washington Interagency Communications Center, which coordinates agency dispatch, indicates that DNR and U.S. Forest Service crews responded to a fire on Cougar Flat just before 3 p.m. on Monday afternoon. Earlier that afternoon, the log also lists Forest Service and DNR crews responding to a one-quarter-acre wildfire on Stokes Road (the fire that was threatening Texas Creek), as well as smoke reports on both Texas and French creeks.
Crews from Okanogan County Fire District No. 6 and Okanogan County Emergency Manager Scott Miller were already on Texas Creek on Monday afternoon. Miller said another fire was burning on the west side of Highway 153 near Gold Creek, but fire managers were less concerned about it because that fire was small.
The following day, residents of seven homes on Texas Creek were told to evacuate and there were 127 people, air tankers and an air attack plane fighting that fire, primarily on DNR land. A state team was due later that day to take over management of the fires on Texas and Gold creeks.
Nathan Rabe, the incident commander with the Washington Type 2 team that arrived Tuesday afternoon to manage the Stokes Road Fire, said they did a complexity analysis and requested a larger team. Still, resources—both engines and aircraft—were scarce, he said.
The dispatch tape shows that everyone was running out of people, with crews coming from every fire district in Okanogan County, from neighboring counties and from the Colville Tribes, said Rogers.
On Wednesday, the Stokes Road Fire crossed the river and the highway and started moving toward Libby Creek, where more structures were threatened. Still more structures were at risk near Beaver Creek, said Fire District 6 Chief Don Waller.
On Wednesday night, the Cougar Flat Fire sent up a huge plume and began racing south across the dry hills.
Confusion on Gold Creek
Ruth Dight, who has a house and property on Gold Creek, was in Seattle when a neighbor called about the fire. “When we got the call on Monday and heard it would be 105 degrees with such low humidity, I knew it would be historic,” said Dight.
Dight and her husband arrived the next day and spent much of the week trying to fight fire on their property. She said fire crews were building fire lines and some even spent the night on their property.
While some people described ample help from fire crews, others encountered confusion and only sporadic assistance.
Joanna Bastian, who lives over the ridge in Gold Creek, said there was almost no information. “For the first three days [Monday through Wednesday], we felt totally on our own,” she said.
“I know it was erratic and unpredictable, but it [the Gold Creek Fire] was a tiny, little fire on Monday the 14th. I’d like to think they could have stopped it earlier,” said Bastian.
On Thursday, when the fire had crested the ridge above her house, Bastian made several calls, trying to find out if it was safe to remain in the area. Someone at the Methow Valley Ranger District told her they were frustrated because “it was DNR’s fire” and DNR wasn’t telling them anything, said Bastian.
Bastian called DNR, where someone told her there was no fire on Gold Creek. “I told them there’d been fire there for four days, and an entire army of firefighters,” said Bastian. In the confusion, she did not record whom she spoke with at either agency.
As the fire grew closer on both sides of Highway 153, Dight called 911. A couple of fire trucks arrived, but the crews said the fire was burning away from her property. They also explained that they had only four pumper trucks for about 100 homes and couldn’t risk sending a truck that might get stuck. They said, “You’re on your own” and left, recalled Dight.
Dight and her husband watered their property all night. The next day, hotshot crews, a pumper truck and helicopters showed up, saying they were there to save her house and a neighbor’s house.
“The support after the fact was amazing,” said Bastian. “Crews were putting out spot fires every hour.”
Just standing there, doing nothing?
Kim and Lenore Maltais say they got no help on the Loup. There were six or eight crews from a variety of fire districts and private contractors around the state parked in a field across from their property on the Loup when the fire approached on Thursday. “I begged for help and the guy just turned his back and walked away,” said Lenore.
Kim, who has 20 years of experience fighting fires and training firefighters for the Forest Service, said it took all day for the fire to move down the hill across from them.
The Maltaises said the crews gave no reason for their inaction. Instead, the crews “were taking selfies and sitting on the hoods of their vehicles eating lunch,” said Kim. “If their mission is to watch, they should say that,” he said. “I’ve never seen a fiasco like this, ever.”
The Maltaises, who lost their house, family heirlooms, four dogs and a parrot in the blaze, successfully fought fire on a neighbor’s property with garden hoses and sprinklers after their house burned. Only then did the crews begin to help, creating a dozer line and putting out hot spots. “They didn’t move till I had it all knocked down,” said Kim.
Further south, Bob and Fannie Tonseth fought the fire at their McFarland Creek property on their own. A DNR crew warned them to leave and said it wasn’t safe for the crew to stay and help, said Bob. Tonseth had built a fireline in June and had a gravity-fed water system. “I knew we could defend our place,” he said. “I wasn’t about to leave after 55 years.”
“The thing that really irritates me,” said Tonseth, “is we pay taxes for DNR fire protection and got nothing. They didn’t even look—if they’d looked and said it wasn’t defensible, that would have been OK.”
The Tonseths saved their house, but lost six outbuildings containing antiques and tools. “I didn’t expect it to hit like it did and to be that violent,” said Bob.
Training, safety concerns
Although it is troubling for people to see fire crews apparently doing nothing, fire managers say not all considerations are evident to the general public.
A crew may seem to be standing around, but they may have been pulled out of an unsafe area, said Robin DeMario, public affairs specialist with the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest and a former fire-crew leader. Often the crew is stationed nearby in case conditions change so that they are available for mop-up or other tasks, she said.
If firefighters appear to be watching something burn, it could be their training and experience, said District 6 Chief Waller. “We won’t send firefighters anywhere where they will get burned. They’re not only spraying water. No piece of property is worth getting somebody killed,” he said.
“We all assume when we see a red truck with guys in yellow shirts, that they’ll put out a fire, but they have very specific assignments every day,” said Miller, the county emergency manager.
Another factor is the team’s assessment of a house. When a fire is raging, the team may determine that cutting brush to save one house would take too long and move up the road to another house that is more defensible, said Brian Scott, a public information officer for the Carlton Complex.
Agency fire protocol
Although areas fall within different jurisdictions for fire protection, once a fire is called in, the rural fire districts (and, in the case of a wildfire, the Forest Service and DNR) are all notified, said Waller. Regardless of where the fire is, the closest forces are sent out for the initial attack, said DNR’s Pearce. The agencies and the incident commanders consult by phone several times a day, discussing fire status and objectives, she said.
Typically, crews from all agencies head out at the same time, and the first to arrive decides whether another agency is needed, said Jim Duck, operations coordinator for Central Washington Interagency Communications Center.
Despite working agreements between agencies, there are some gray areas, said Waller. For example, although Stokes Road is private property, it never joined the fire district and remains DNR’s jurisdiction, although usually both the fire district and DNR respond.
The nature of the fire can also make a difference. Wildland firefighters from the Forest Service or DNR cannot fight structure fires because they don’t have the appropriate training, although they can assist with vegetation around structures, said DeMario.
Once fire season ends in October, local and state officials will evaluate the response to the summer’s destructive fires. Okanogan County Commissioner Ray Campbell said they intend to see if the process for bringing in resources, including certified private crews, can be streamlined.
DNR will do its own assessment. “Each year DNR prepares after-action reviews of every wildfire of the season,” said Pearce. “The Carlton Complex will be deeply reviewed because so many homes were destroyed. We have not witnessed that type of fire behavior in our state.”