Methow Valley fire devastates town; U.S. 2 still closed

PATEROS — A fire racing through rural north-central Washington destroyed about 100 homes, leaving behind smoldering rubble, solitary brick chimneys and burned-out automobiles as it blackened hundreds of square miles in the scenic Methow Valley.

Friday’s dawn revealed dramatic devastation, with the Okanagan County town of Pateros, home to 650 people, hit especially hard. Most residents evacuated in advance of the flames, and some returned Friday to see what, if anything, was left of their houses. There were no reports of injuries, officials said.

A second big complex of fires, near Leavenworth, also was burning furiously Friday, and U.S. 2 east of Stevens Pass remained closed.

In Pateros, a wall of fire wiped out a block of homes on Dawson Street. David Brownlee, 75, said he drove away Thursday evening just as the fire reached the front of his home, which erupted like a box of matches.

“It was just a funnel of fire,” Brownlee said. “All you could do was watch her go.”

Next door, the Pateros Community Church appeared largely undamaged.

The pavement of U.S. 97 stopped the advance of some of the flames, protecting parts of the town.

Firefighters poured water over the remnants of homes Friday morning, raising clouds of smoke, steam and dust. Two big water towers perched just above the town were singed black. Ash fell like snowflakes.

The fire consumed utility poles from two major power lines, knocking out power to Pateros as well as the towns of Winthrop and Twisp to the north.

Gov. Jay Inslee said about 50 fires were burning in Washington, which has been wracked by hot, dry weather and gusting winds and lightning. Some 2,000 firefighters were working in the eastern part of the state, with about a dozen helicopters from the state Department of Natural Resources and the National Guard, along with a Washington State Patrol spotter plane.

Karina Shagren, spokeswoman for the state’s Military Department, said 100 National Guard troops were on standby, and up to 1,000 more in Yakima could receive additional fire training. Active duty military could be called in as well, Inslee said.

“This, unfortunately, is not going to be a one-day or one-week event,” he said.

Sections of several highways were closed in the Methow Valley, a popular area for hiking and fishing.

“There’s a lot of misplaced people, living in parking lots and stuff right now,” said Rod Griffin, a fly-fishing guide who lives near Twisp. “The whole valley’s in disarray.”

He described long lines for gasoline, with at least one gas station out of fuel, and said cellphone towers must have been damaged as well because there was very little service.

In Brewster, 6 miles to the south, a hospital was evacuated as a precaution. The smoke was so thick there Friday it nearly obscured the Columbia River from adjacent highways. The smoke extended all the way to Spokane, 150 miles to the east.

Officials said the fire, known as the Carlton Complex, had blackened 260 square miles by Friday, up dramatically from the prior estimate of 28 square miles.

It continued to grow Friday, with evacuation orders issued for a small cluster of homes at Davis Lake, southeast of Winthrop, fire spokeswoman Jessica Blethen said. No further update on the size was expected before Saturday morning.

“Mother Nature is winning here,” Don Waller, chief of Okanogan County Fire District 6, told The Wenatchee World newspaper.

The county sheriff, Frank Rogers, said his team counted 30 houses and trailers destroyed in Pateros, another 40 in a community just outside the town at Alta Lake, and about 25 homes destroyed elsewhere in the county of about 40,000 people.

About 100 miles to the south, the Mills Canyon Complex of fires chased people from nearly 900 homes as it sent a dusting of ash over the Bavarian-themed village of Leavenworth. Some of those evacuation orders were eased Friday, but there was no indication on when U.S. 2 would reopen in the area, said fire spokeswoman Mary Bean.

Worsening wildfire activity has prompted the governor’s offices in both Washington and Oregon to declare states of emergency, a move that allows state officials to call up the National Guard.

Fifteen large fires were reported throughout Oregon on Friday, burning across more than 565 square miles of timber, rangeland and grass. Dozens of homes were evacuated as incident management teams and hotshot crews were brought in from at least nine states to supplement Oregon’s strained resources.

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