Some barely escaped, many evacuated, others helped out as Twisp River Fire blew up
By Laurelle Walsh and Marcy Stamper
What caused the fire that ignited near Twisp River Road and Woods Canyon Road on Aug. 19 is still being investigated, but its rapid spread, proximity to towns and homes, and resulting evacuations have impacted nearly all in the Methow Valley community.
Everyone has their story, but almost no one was closer to the start of the fire than Mary Ann Kirkland.
Only two months ago, Dennis and Mary Ann Kirkland sold their home on Woods Canyon Road — the furthest residence of only six houses on the narrow, winding road — and are now in the process of building a new home in Twisp. In the mean time they have been living in their neighbors’ small apartment above a detached garage in the same Woods Canyon neighborhood, about 6 miles from town.
Around 12:45 p.m. on Aug. 19, Mary Ann, who was home alone at the time, heard her dog “barking like crazy,” so she looked out the curtains that were closed against the noon-day sun. Okanogan County Fire District 6 Chief Don Waller was below, pounding on the door of their neighbors’ house, and shouting.
“‘You have to get out of here immediately,’” Mary Ann recalls hearing Waller say. “‘You have to get out of here or you’re going to die.’ It was something I never thought I was going to hear,” Mary Ann said. “I didn’t have shoes or anything. I grabbed my purse and ran with no shoes on, down the stairs, across the gravel and into my car.” Neither she nor Waller were able to get the two dogs. Waller told her to “just go.”
Mary Ann drove down the steep dirt road as fast as she could, thinking to herself, “I hope I don’t hit a deer,” she remembers. “I didn’t see the fire because I was so focused on getting down the road. I didn’t process anything except for to get out of there. I was panicked. At that time I thought both my dogs were dead.”
In the mean time Dennis, who had been in town working on their new house in Twisp, received a phone call about the fire from a friend and raced up Twisp River Road. On the way, despite spotty cell phone coverage, Mary Ann managed to get a call through to him, and pleaded with Dennis to rescue their dogs.
“I arrived at the road to see if I could gain access,” Dennis said. “Initially Don Waller wouldn’t let me go up — he said it was too dangerous.” He stood with the fire chief, watching the fire from Twisp River Road for about 20 minutes, Dennis estimates. Seeing that the fire wasn’t moving toward Woods Canyon Road, Waller asked a volunteer firefighter to take Dennis up the road in his truck to get the two dogs.
“Flames were quite close to the road,” Dennis recalls. “We went up the road, grabbed the dogs, and got out of there within about 5 minutes.”
Shortly after they returned safely at the foot of the road, the wind direction changed and flames crossed over Woods Canyon Road. “Had the wind direction changed earlier, I could have been trapped,” Dennis said.
“I feel fortunate to be alive,” Mary Ann said. “We’re alive and our animals are alive.”
“Had the part-time neighbor not been there and called in the fire, Mary Ann would have had no way of knowing the fire was there,” Dennis said. “Had Don Waller not knocked on the door, if she hadn’t been notified, she would have died.”
Everything the Kirklands had in the apartment was destroyed. “Absolutely everything was burned,” said Mary Ann. “Every time I think about something, I remember, ‘Oh, that burned.’”
“It’s hard to know what to do next,” Dennis said. “We have to replace our checkbooks, remember all our passwords, get the computers working again, finish building the house.”
Help for evacuees
Like others who were evacuated, the Kirklands headed down valley to Pateros last Wednesday night, where they got the last room in the only hotel that would take them and their dogs.
Evacuated Winthrop- and Twisp-area residents parked their RVs along Lakeshore Drive in Pateros or pitched tents on the grass of Memorial Park. Others headed for the official evacuation center in Brewster where they slept in one of two shelters, pitched tents on the soccer field or parked their RVs at the Brewster RV park.
Evacuees from the Okanogan Valley also poured into Brewster and Pateros as fires forced the evacuations of Riverside, Omak and Conconully.
Verizon service was nonexistent and other cell phone coverage was spotty due to a problem with one of the nearby towers, so people shared working phones or made collect calls from the payphone at the Pateros Super Stop. Wifi was working at Sweet River Bakery and at the Red Cross shelter at Brewster High School; consequently, many evacuees sent emails or posted messages on Facebook notifying loved ones of their whereabouts.
Shan Miller is a business owner, vice president of the Brewster Chamber of Commerce and manager at the Brewster Pool. She also knows how to quickly convert the Columbia Cove Recreation Center into a shelter for evacuees and their pets, having done it two summers in a row — last year for hundreds of refugees of the Carlton Complex Fire.
“It’s an honor to be able to give people something during a horrible situation,” Miller said. “We are all doing what we can.”
The air-conditioned rec center offered respite from the hot, smoky air; mats in the gym provided a place to sleep; and the center’s restrooms were open all night long.
Miller was at Brewster Harvest Foods Wednesday night purchasing a flashlight and kitty litter for the shelter, when she asked a weary Methow Valley News reporter where she was from and what were her plans for the night. “After going through what we did last year, we recognize that look,” said Miller, leading the reporter to the rec center, where she pitched her tent on the soccer field alongside other evacuees.
At Brewster High School, several dozen people slept on cots in classrooms at the American Red Cross shelter, according to shelter manager Fran Adams, who had also run the shelter at the Winthrop Barn last summer.
“This time we’re getting people from a much wider geographic area,” Adams said.
Eric Driessen, superintendent of the Brewster School District, said that last summer Brewster High School housed a large fire camp. “Our community has a lot of empathy for what you’re going through,” Driessen said in the cafeteria on Thursday morning (Aug. 20). “We know what it’s like to be displaced and not know if your house is going to be there when you get back.”
Students would be returning to school this week, Driessen said, “so we’re taking it day by day for now.” If the need for a Red Cross shelter remains after the start of school, the shelter will move to the rec center next door, Driessen said.
Forty teenagers from all over the United States and Outward Bound staff spent Wednesday night on the grass soccer field at Brewster High School. The students were near the end of their courses at the Northwest Outward Bound School in Mazama, when staff received an alert from Okanogan County Emergency Management that Winthrop and Twisp were being evacuated, according to Logistics Manager Ryan Audett.
“Staff decided to be proactive and get the students out,”Audett said. “We were in no immediate danger, but it was more a matter of ‘what ifs,’” compounded by the closure of the North Cascades Highway, so students and staff were shuttled down to the Brewster evacuation center in vans. Early the next morning the students boarded a school bus bound for SeaTac Airport.
At the same time, three Outward Bound “crews” were in the North Cascades near Washington Pass on a field course, Audett said. Base camp staff were able to contact crew leaders in the field by satellite phone and apprise them of the fires and evacuations occurring many miles away. “They are staged in a good location to get out of the mountains,” so the decision was made not to interrupt the field courses, Audett said.
After receiving an evacuation alert, Jim and Gail Brennan left their home on East Buttermilk Creek Road and headed to Twisp to pick up their adult children, neither of whom drive. Realizing they couldn’t get through on Twisp River Road due to the fire, the Brennans drove up to Black Pine Lake and along Forest Service roads before making their way down Libby Creek. Backtracking to Twisp, they had to pass through a roadblock. “The strangest thing was to be heading back to Twisp while everyone else was driving down valley,” Jim Brennan said
The Brennans slept at the Red Cross shelter in Brewster where, on Thursday morning, they were in search of information about the fires. “Information is worth its weight in gold. I remember this from last year,” said Brennan.
Tom Schamal, of Twisp, slept at the Red Cross shelter after evacuating with his family the night before. In the cafeteria Thursday morning, Schamal had a fire mapping website open on his laptop where other evacuees could look at satellite images of fires in the Okanogan and Methow valleys.
Schamal had gone to the Aeneas Valley near Tonasket the day before to help evacuate his mother, and as the two were heading back over the Loup to the Methow Valley, his wife called to tell him that a new fire had erupted in Twisp and the family needed to evacuate, Schamal recalled. “Seems like there’s a fire everywhere I go,” Schamal said.
Lauren Ettlin of Portland, Oregon, spent the night in a high school classroom along with 10 other women. “It wasn’t too bad,” she said.
Ettlin landed in Brewster after having spent the previous week as artist-in-residence at North Cascades Institute (NCI) on Diablo Lake. After returning to NCI from a hike on Wednesday, she learned that the environmental learning center was being evacuated due to the Goodall Fire near Newhalem, which had closed the North Cascades Highway heading west. Ettlin was told to go to Winthrop “where they said there was an evacuation center,” she said. Miles later, after driving through two unmanned roadblocks, Ettlin found herself in deserted downtown Winthrop with no information about what she should do. “There was no one around to even ask,” Ettlin said, “no way for visitors to get information.”
“Thank goodness for the pumper truck driver,” Ettlin said, crediting an Okanogan County Fire District 6 firefighter who told her to continue driving south to Brewster. “I wish I could thank him,” she said.
Not everyone felt it was necessary to leave, and some waited until the smoke became too irritating or the roaring flames became too unnerving.
Mike Price, who lives in Twisp, was ultimately driven out by the smoke. Depending on the wind, at times the smoke was a real irritation and at times the air was still clear. A lot of windborne ash and particles were falling in town, he said.
Price said he thought he would be able to protect his property by putting out spot fires with a hose. It didn’t seem that fire in the town was imminent, but he and his neighbors all had a back-up plan to leave if necessary.
“Everyone was weighing it. We had a back-up plan, the car packed. We heard the roads were crowded and didn’t want to be a part of it,” said Price.
There was also a certain camaraderie in being with a few other people. Most had phones and some had scanners, so they had a steady stream of information.
“By staying, you felt like you were more connected. We were more interested in the welfare of the few who were left,” said Price. Everyone who passed made sure people were OK and would be able to get out. “It reduced everything to a more human scale,” he said.
But as it got dark and emergency managers asked people not to use water so it would be available for firefighters—and with the fire raging on the hill above town—the prospect of a sleepless night seemed unappealing. “It was a hard call,” said Price, but he was persuaded by family and friends who wanted him to leave.
Price’s neighbor, Renda Grim, stayed throughout the firestorm. “I didn’t think it was coming to town. I would have left it I saw it coming over the mountain,” she said.
When she first saw the flames on the hill, Grim said she felt a bit nervous, but the feeling was only momentary, she said. Grim said she’s used to taking care of herself.
Grim also knew there was a mass exodus with a lot of firefighter and first-responder traffic and said she didn’t want to be in anyone’s way.
As it turned out, Grim was able to fill in for an evacuated co-worker on the early shift at Cinnamon Twisp Bakery. One crew boss bought 18 cinnamon Twisps to take to his fire crew, she said.
All too familiar
Ken Bevis—who had been through this before during the Rising Eagle Road Fire last summer—said he and his wife did a full evacuation, loading their precious things and dogs and setting sprinklers around their house before leaving to camp out in Pateros.
Al and Christine Bisnett, Bevis’ neighbors, got the emergency notice midday and began to prepare to get out with their three dogs. After a visit from the sheriff and seeing a large plume rising behind his house, they headed to the Red Cross evacuation center at Brewster High School. But when they learned they couldn’t stay there with their dogs—and couldn’t find a hotel room—they drove back north to the Methow Valley.
The Bisnetts arrived a little before midnight and spent the night in their vehicle at the airport near the smokejumper base so they could keep an eye on their house across the valley, said Al.
“It brought back all the memories of the Rising Eagle Fire,” he said. Last year, they hadn’t been able to get home to get their dogs and didn’t know for several hours that they were safe, said Al.
Joyce Bergen and Larry Lund were watching the fire from Studhorse Mountain on Wednesday afternoon. Within minutes, as a cloud of smoke turned into open flames on the hillside and the wind picked up, they packed hurriedly.
A pet-friendly hotel in Wenatchee, where people milled around the lobby with luggage carts piled with all their belongings — often a tiny dog perched on top — gave them a discount for being refugees, said Bergen.
Kaleb Mowen, age 13, stayed in Twisp with his family and a few neighbors. “It was kind of empty, but I kind of wanted to stay in case it got too close, to fight it,” said Mowen, who said a friend told him where to find a shovel.
They spent the night listening to ambulance and firefighter chatter on his mother’s scanner.
Another Twisp resident who stayed said they spent the night watching the fire back down the hill above town and that Twisp was like a ghost town the next day. “The top of the Spokane grade [above Twisp River Road] was like an inferno,” she said.