Residents safe but lose belongings
From her post at the Carlton Store, Kellie DeWeert found the fortitude to shoot a video of the immense column of flames engulfing her home across the highway. She wanted something she could post on social media to reassure everyone that she, her 6-year-old daughter, Arya, and their neighbor were safe.
The store serves as the hub of the community. As general manager and operator of the store, DeWeert was bombarded by calls and texts from neighbors worried when they saw the plume of smoke.
The devastating fire started around 6 p.m. on Wednesday (Feb. 15) and quickly consumed the historic Carlton Mall, a wooden building that’s served many uses since it was built in the 1940s.
DeWeert’s neighbor, Jared Gibson, was fixing dinner and made a quick trip to the store across Highway 153 to get something to drink. When he opened his door a minute later, the entire apartment was filled with smoke. Moments after that, the apartment building was engulfed in fire, DeWeert said.
Because the back of her apartment started as a meat locker, it had metal walls with lots of insulation, which provided some protection from the heat and flames, DeWeert was able to grab a few items. Most of her family’s losses were due to smoke and water damage.
But Gibson lost everything — he got out with just the clothes on his back, DeWeert said. Fortunately, he had a jacket in the car. DeWeert gave him a new Carlton T-shirt. Gibson had lived in the apartment across from the store for half a dozen years, DeWeert said.
DeWeert, who’s a quilter, salvaged her vintage sewing machine and quilting supplies. She grabbed totes containing her daughter’s Disney books, baby toys, and a few special pieces of clothing she hopes she can treat to remove the smoke damage.
“The blessing is, we got to salvage things for my daughter,” DeWeert said. “For me, it’s stuff — I know it’s replaceable.”
DeWeert also rescued her family’s pit bull, Valentina, but their cats ran out in the commotion and haven’t been found.
While the loss is devastating, it could have been much worse had the fire started while they were sleeping, DeWeert said.
For now, DeWeert’s main focus is on keeping things as consistent and normal as possible for Arya. Arya apparently feels the same way. On Thursday, the day after the fire, she insisted on going to school so she could tell her friends that she’s OK.
Firefighters were on scene in just a few minutes, but the wooden structure was already overwhelmed when they arrived, according to a Facebook post by Okanogan County Fire District 6. “Fire was pumping hard out the windows — it was completely involved,” said Carlton Station Lieutenant Brandon Richison, the first to arrive on the scene.
Richison helped cover items in DeWeert’s apartment to protect them from the water hoses – particularly things that Arya hoped to save, DeWeert said.
Fifteen firefighters battled the blaze for hours. Snow berms and thick ice made the job much more difficult, District 6 said. Because of the proximity to the road and the water-supply lines firefighters fed across the roadway, Highway 153 was closed to traffic, which was detoured to the Twisp-Carlton Road.
It was well after midnight when most fire crews returned to their stations, but some remained overnight to make sure that the sawdust insulation didn’t rekindle, District 6 said.
Community steps up
Although the store windows look out at the charred wooden façade of her former home, being at work has been helpful — both to keep busy and because of the friends and neighbors who came to check on her, DeWeert said.
Friday afternoon, two days after the blaze, a steady stream of customers stopped by to make sure she was OK. Many handed her cash or a bag of clothing, toys, and other essentials for her family and for Gibson.
“This is more overwhelming than anything. Not ‘bad’ overwhelming — it’s just amazing, the love and the support. Anyone here would help anyone,” she said.
DeWeert said Gibson had also been overcome by the outpouring of help. On social media, he said the love and support had made the experience easier to deal with, she said.
“This man is an amazing friend, hardworking individual, a humble human being, and someone my family cherishes greatly … anything our community can do is hugely appreciated and will get Jared back on his feet,” said a friend of Gibson’s on the GoFundMe campaign she organized.
DeWeert grew up in the Methow Valley and graduated from Liberty Bell High School in 1994. Her father was Dan DeWeert, who ran a veterinary practice in Twisp for four decades. DeWeert remembers going everywhere with her father when she was a girl, including helping him round up cattle.
After 25 years in the San Francisco Bay area, a year and a half ago Kellie DeWeert moved back to the Methow to raise Arya.
The outpouring of help completes the circle DeWeert’s generosity has engendered. She often extends a line of credit at the store to customers so they can buy gas or dinner until they get their next paycheck.
In California, DeWeert built the same rapport with customers — including major sports stars and Facebook executives — at the breakfast restaurant where she worked for nearly two decades. “I created a small-town restaurant in the middle of Silicon Valley,” she said.
The building that came to be known as the Carlton Mall was built in the 1930s as a locker room for cold storage by the owner of the Carlton General Merchandise store across the road. In the mid-1940s, they added a coin-operated laundry, according to the Shafer Historical Museum. Many residents of the lower valley remember going there to take showers. The building was later converted to apartments.
DeWeert lamented the loss of a local landmark. “A sad thing is that this is one of the last things in Carlton that hadn’t burned yet,” she said.
The cause of the fire hasn’t been determined.
DeWeert and Gibson are currently staying with friends and family.