Fire Storm – Flames Descend
Part 1 of 3
When I retired from Law Enforcement, some part of me wanted to believe that I was leaving stressful and exciting events in the past. You know, responding to calls, risking personal safety to help others or dealing with the occasional major event. However, we all know that is not reality and things happen. July 2015 was the one year anniversary of the Washington State Carlton Complex Fire in Eastern Washington. At its conclusion it was the largest wildfire in Washington State history with over 256,000 acres burned and over 300 homes lost. So what does this have to do with me?
On July 17th, 2014 my wife Kim and I headed for our cabin at Alta Lake in Eastern Washington. It was going to be a beautiful weekend so I told Kim that I was not going to take any work clothes with me as I was just going to relax. After arriving at the cabin we started to settle in when I recalled hearing about a fire in the area. Next I did what we all do, I googled it. To my surprise I could see that a fire was burning to the North of us but was off in the distance. A short time later I was asked by my brother if I wanted to go check out the fire and I agreed. I most certainly was not prepared for what happened next.
Expecting to drive some distance to view a fire in a secluded area, I suddenly found myself stunned when just a mile from our house I could see visible flames to the north. I was now standing on a hillside just south of the Methow River looking across the river to the ridge above. There are no words to accurately describe what I was seeing. The fire was just cresting a ridge and the flames were being fanned by a 25 mph wind. The flames stretched along the ridge from the east, just above the city of Pateros, and to the west up the Methow Valley. Even at this distance it was clear that the fire was moving rapidly and consuming everything in its path. At this point the fire appeared to be on the north side of the Methow River and, although concern was high, there was still a river between us and the inferno.
I quickly returned to the cabin and picked Kim up and we returned to the same lookout point to assess the movement of the fire. The sky was now very dark from thick smoke and the sun was covered in a reddish hue. The fire was still raging and had now burned down the ridge to the river’s edge. Explosions of flame were erupting from gas tanks, propane bottles and who knows what else. There was a red glow above the town of Pateros as the flames descended into the downtown area. Flashing lights were visible as emergency crews attempted to stop the advancing devastation. At one point I could see fire dancing around a structure just before it burst into flames. What was occurring before us was so unbelievable it was hard to take our eyes off what was happening.
As we stood watching the growing red glow of consuming flames I turned and looked up river. The fire had now jumped the Methow. If you have ever been to Alta Lake you know that there is only one road in and out of the lake. The fire was headed right for that exit. I immediately thought of others living at the lake.
We first contacted our neighbor who was home alone. We assisted her in getting ready to leave. Next we went to the far south side of the lake. It was clear that the residents there had no idea what was coming as it appeared to be just another beautiful evening at the lake. We had to convince them of the magnitude of the event and helped one person load up a few valuables. It was now our turn to make our run for the exit.
As we departed we drove past our home actually thinking this might be the last time seeing it. As you drive out of Alta Lake you pass an 18 hole golf course and then descend a road that intersects with the main highway at the Methow River. As we passed the pro-shop I could now clearly see that the fire had not only crossed the river but was now in full force burning towards the golf course. As we approached the turn to start our descent it looked as if we were going to drive into a fire pit. Have you ever just sat and looked into a campfire or your fireplace at home with all the red coals glowing? It was at this point I was not convinced that the road was still passable. As we continued toward the leading edge of the fire I could see that the flames were just off the road to the west. There was still a clear path of escape but not for long. We descended to the main road with the flames just to the left of our vehicle. With a right turn at the bottom, we accelerated toward safety leaving the fate of our home behind.
I would ask the question – how prepared are we to handle a disaster or major event? Are we prepared to leave or shelter in place? How about after the event? Do we have adequate insurance coverages on our homes, property and autos that would assist with the recovery? Just something to think about.
In case you are wondering, Kim and I were very fortunate that our cabin did survive the fire that night. The fire burned within 200 yards of our cabin and stopped at a small foot trail. Others around the lake, golf course and county were not as fortunate as their homes were totally consumed and destroyed.