Blaze burned house, shed, surrounding area
A fire that burned a house, shed, fields, and trees on Twisp River Road in early April was most likely caused by a rototiller that caught fire as someone was trying to start the machine.
The fire spread from the rototiller to the garden and then to wildland areas, where winds ignited dead cottonwood snags along the river, Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Fire Investigator Tyler Monnin said in an investigation completed May 13.
Although the origin area was destroyed in the initial attack, Monnin found a burned rototiller in the area. The property owner’s father-in-law, Henry Bishop, was reportedly trying to start the rototiller when a nearby shed caught fire.
The fire started on a warm, windy afternoon almost 5 miles up Twisp River Road on April 7. Firefighters from all four Okanogan County Fire District 6 stations responded to the blaze and initially succeeded in knocking down the fire in the shed within a couple of hours, District 6 Fire Chief Cody Acord said at the time. Firefighters were called back very early the next morning when the shed fire flared up and the adjacent house caught fire. There was no safe way to save the house, Acord said.
A second fire on the property, upwind of the structure fire, was caused when a contractor who had a permit from DNR to burn piles of brush and slash from a forest-thinning project left the burning piles to assist with the blaze near the house. Fire from the piles escaped because of the windy conditions, because there was no fire line around them, and because they had been left unattended while the contractor helped battle the structure fire, DNR Fire Investigator Austin Vargas said in a separate investigation completed May 7.
The contractor, Esai Jasso, provided voluntary, detailed written statements to both investigators the day after the fires.
After he’d lit his last pile at about 4:30 p.m., Jasso wrote that he heard yelling and saw 25-foot flames near the house. He grabbed his hand tool, water and leaf blower and ran to the structures, but quickly determined it was unsafe to fight the shed directly.
Bishop was trying to get water to flow from the frost-free pump, Jasso said. Meanwhile, Jasso, Bishop and passersby who’d stopped to help connected a few hoses but could reach only the walkway between the house and the shed. Bishop also used buckets of water to try to control the blaze, Jasso said.
Bishop called to report the fire while Jasso tried to wet down the shed. Jasso later attempted to cut away part of the shed roof with a chainsaw.
Once the firefighters arrived, Jasso used his hand tool and leaf blower to extinguish the flank of the fire that was spreading across dry grass in the field but, once the fire ignited the trees along the river, it became too hot and smoky, he said.
While firefighters and others who’d stopped to help built a fire line to anchor the wildland fire, Jasso looked over toward the piles he’d been burning at the base of the hills, a considerable distance from the main blaze, and “noted the fire was creeping along the hillside, slowly progressing.”
The commanding officer instructed him to let the piles burn until the relative humidity increased in the evening, Jasso said. He retrieved equipment he’d left near the piles and returned to the main fire near the structures, helping extinguish a fire that had started on an island in the river.
Once DNR wildland firefighters arrived in the early evening, Jasso showed them his piles, which were “not showing much activity” by that time, he wrote.
When investigator Vargas arrived at the scene at about 6:30 p.m., he saw two separate fires. The fire near the hillside was burning in heavy timber and heavy slash and covered about 0.2 acre. The area had been commercially thinned and there were multiple debris piles inside and outside the fire perimeter, Vargas wrote.
The next day Vargas and a third investigator inspected the area and interviewed Jasso. Jasso showed them three piles outside the fire perimeter and, although none had fire lines around them, none had escaped containment. After those three piles had been consumed, Jasso said he lit three more piles. He built a partial fire line on the uphill side of one pile when it got too hot, but none of the other piles had lines around them, Vargas wrote. Most of the piles had been completely consumed and hadn’t escaped, Vargas said.
In his written statement, Jasso said he’d waited until late afternoon to light his piles and noted they were “receptive to very little fire to get going.” He tried different fuels to see which would be “least troublesome to control” and waited until each pile had cooled before lighting the next one. He scooped snow in two 5-gallon buckets to cool the fires if they got too hot.
When Jasso checked the piles at dusk, they were burning and smoldering, but there was no active flame advancement, he said.
Combating the fires that April afternoon and evening was complicated by the fact that a District 6 engine punched through the wooden deck of the private bridge over the Twisp River that provides the only access to the property. The truck was stranded there for about four hours, so firefighters hand-carried hoses and other equipment to the fire. They were able to pump water from the truck.
Bishop sustained burns while trying to suppress the shed fire and was transported to the hospital by emergency medical personnel before the firefighters arrived, investigator Monnin wrote.