Snohomish County fire crews in the thick of fight in Okanogan

OKANOGAN — The fire rolled over the hill, leaving black dust, white ash and burned sage behind. But the apple orchards below and three of four homes were saved.

Fire breaks dug by Snohomish County firefighters on Friday stopped the flames.

Four of the firefighters walked the lines Saturday, looking for smoldering hot spots that could flare up again.

“They’ve got the heat, they just need a little wind,” and they can jump back to life, said Matt Park, an Everett firefighter who was among the hundreds called in to fight the still out-of-control wildfires in Central Washington.

Neighbors and strangers, some from as far away as Florida, are stepping up as one of the biggest disasters in state history unfolds.

A few miles northeast, in one of the many steep valleys that cut through the trees and sagebrush, another crew of firefighters from Snohomish County used drip torches to burn away the brush and grass surrounding Tim Eylar’s home. They needed a scorched- earth barrier to keep at bay the wildfire if it decided to head that way.

The blaze was near, with flames claiming pine trees on the valley wall above.

At Eylar’s home, trees occasionally ignited. Crews would stop and turn their hose on the flare-ups.

The day before, Eylar and his neighbor had fought off the fire by themselves.

“In a way, when you help your neighbor, you’re really helping yourself,” he said.

Strong winds Friday pushed the wildfires known as the Okanogan Complex across another 100 square miles.

“We were really fortunate. We had favorable wind, and it helped us hold the line,” Eylar said.

Snohomish County firefighters had spent Friday jumping from home to home, trying to keep the flames away.

A couple of kids’ bicycles, a trampoline, a swing and other toys were scattered around one house.

Everett Fire Capt. Brent Stainer didn’t want to lose that house.

“The toys — you know kids live there,” he said.

His crew saved three homes, though they lost a fourth — “a really neat old farmhouse” — which had been vacant for a couple years, he said.

The firefighters hit the flames approaching the house with their engine’s water cannon, which gushes at 500 gallons a minute.

The ground and vegetation was so dry, though, the deluge quickly dissipated.

“We’d knock it down, and it would pop up again,” he said.

They moved on to the neighboring homes, which were by then also threatened. “When we came back (to the farmhouse), it was too late,” Stainer said. “It’s frustrating.”

By Saturday, all that remained of the old house was three stone chimneys and the foundation.

Even so, people living here are grateful.

On Saturday, as Stainer and others crouched over a map at an intersection, a pickup pulled up and stopped. The driver, Zach Thompson, Sr., rolled down his window, his son, Zach Jr., in the passenger seat.

“Whoever saved our house, thank you,” he said.

The fire around their home was in another of the rugged valleys outside Okanogan. They left Wednesday after getting word from sheriff’s deputies.

“They said we needed to leave because it was coming,” the elder Thompson said.

Like many locals, they’ve been sleeping at a motel in town.

Zach Jr., who works at the Home Depot in Okanogan, said half of the store’s parking lot is filled with employees and their trailers. That’s where they took their families after fleeing their homes.

“We had one family stay in the store because they literally had nothing,” Zach Jr. said.

When fire threatened Chelan and cut off the power earlier this month, the hardware store owner opened his doors, said Mike Cooney, who owns The Vogue, a coffee shop and wine bar in town. He’s also a city council member and running for Chelan mayor.

The hardware store’s owner “was asking people what they need and handing it over,” Cooney said. “He wasn’t at the register, saying, ‘OK, that’s $14.99 and that’s $5.’”

Business owners here don’t know how they’ll make up for the lost tourism dollars. Like many restaurants in town, Cooney had to throw out thousands of dollars of perishable food that rotted during the power outage.

Chelan in late August is usually buzzing with tourists squeezing in one last get-away before the start of school. Cooney figures business is less than half of what’s typical.

For many people in Chelan, the money from summer tourists pays the bills the rest of the year.

“What you have in the bank on Labor Day is what you have until Memorial Day,” Cooney said.

The Vogue is a popular spot for locals, and bills itself as “The Valley’s gathering place.”

Since opening 10 years ago, it has offered live music every weekend — until the wildfires closed in.

The Vogue hosted a benefit concert Friday night to raise money for those whose lives have been disrupted.

A Seattle band was supposed to play, but cancelled Thursday, worried about the smoke and fire.

Cooney called another local, Dave Riel, to ask if his band, Loose Change, would fill in.

“Without hesitation, I said ‘Yes,’” Riel said.

A crowd filled the dance floor Friday as the band rattled off raucous covers of ‘70s rock classics.

Showgoers put about $2,500 into the collection jar passed around between songs.

“We’re not trying to be saints,” Cooney said as he washed wine glasses after the show. “We’re just trying to help the community in any way we can.”

After nearly two weeks of raging fires, the tension is wearing at locals and firefighters alike.

Kittitas County Fire District 7 firefighter Eric Kiehn saw the stress Wednesday in Twisp, where the fire exploded. It already had killed three firefighters and threatened to sweep into town.

Crews were pulled off other assignments, including Kiehn’s. They were thrown at the fire in the valley outside town.

The makeshift strike force rallied at the grocery store. Many had been on fire lines for several days. All knew fellow firefighters had died that day.

“You could see it in people’s faces,” he said.

One engine driver who grew up in Twisp broke down, crying.

Kiehn and his crew mates tried to focus on their tasks.

There will be plenty of time for the scars — on the land, on bodies and on hearts — after the flames are gone.

Ian Terry contributed to this report.

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