Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Firestorm 2014 - Part 1

It all started so innocuously; a text and a picture of a smoke column rising on the distant horizon.

People think of Washington State as green year-round with lots of rain and a temperate climate. In some areas such as Seattle and the Olympic Peninsula that is an apt description. East of the Cascade Mountains it is a different story however.

We live in a small valley along the eastern slopes of the North Cascades in North Central Washington.  The Methow Valley is like much of NCW - prone to wildland fires. Grass and sage covered hillsides that were covered in snow during the winter rapidly turn brown in hot, dry summer conditions.  Bark beetle infestations have damaged a lot of the forests in higher elevations leaving acres upon acres of dead trees.  Wildfires are something you live with and prepare as best you can in case one breaks out. There is even a Smokejumper base about five miles from our house.

I was working in Minnesota when the first text from home arrived on the morning of July 15th. A storm with dry lightning had passed through the day before and as usual started a few fires from lightning strikes.

“ Texas Creek is blowing up. ..Had to jam on the Jeep’s brakes at the fire station as a brush truck was leaving all lit up and siren blaring. Smoke column is visible from the house.”

Smoke Column from Stokes Road Fire

We’ve seen similar columns of smoke before but generally the wildland fire crews from the various agencies will react quickly if the fire is in a populated area.  Who responds depends on if it is on U.S. Forest Service, Washington Department of Natural Resources, county or privately owned land.

Because wildland fires are a way of life, I have several fire-related websites bookmarked so I can keep up the latest information. One of the sites I use frequently is a fire detection map from the USFS. This map depicts fire activity as detected by MODIS over the last 6, 12 and 24 hours each day, and cumulative fire activity detected since the beginning of the calendar year. Sure enough, the fire was showing up on MODIS. At that point, it was called the Stokes Road fire (near Texas Creek area).

A second possible fire was reported in the Carlton area later in the day along with a third fire north of our house.

MODIS Snapshot from 7/15/2014 @ 5 PM

Another valuable site I monitor regularly is a wildland fire forum website. I relied heavily on the information being posted since most of it is from people associated with or very familiar with wildland fires. Our fires were rapidly growing due to high air temperatures, low humidity and windy conditions. Level 3 evacuation notices (which means get out NOW) were being issued to homeowners in the Stokes Road, Texas Creek and French Creek drainages. Resources including air support were being mobilized from another large fire that was winding down near the Wenatchee area to come help fight these new fires in the Methow Valley.

By late afternoon the four fires (yes, there were four now - Stokes Road, French Creek, Golden Hike and Cougar Flat) were being called the Carlton Complex fire and were going to be managed as one large fire.  Chatter on the forum became very active with reports from the fire areas.

Throughout the rest of the day and into the evening I checked the websites to see what was happening and relayed updates to home until it was time to go to bed.

I started off my next morning, July 16th, by checking the fire map and the other fire websites.

MODIS - Carlton Complex Fires - 7/16/14 @ 3 AM

I also received more texts and pictures from home. This time the smoke column from Cougar Flat was visible from our front door.

Smoke Column from Cougar Flat Fire

Throughout the day into the evening, I kept checking my fire sites and getting updates from home. The Cougar Flat fire was growing rapidly as the winds pushed it farther south down the valley.  Our house is situated on the opposite side of the river and the fire wasn’t of immediate concern, just something to keep an eye on.  The fires near Carlton were still growing as well.

By the next morning, July 17th, the fires had exploded in size.  Cougar Flat was roaring, Stokes Road and Golden Hike fires had merged and was close to merging with the French Creek fire. The firestorm was underway.

MODIS - Carlton Complex Fires - 7/17/2014 @ 3 AM

Smoke from Cougar Flat Fire in the Early Morning Hours

Another View of the Smoke at Sunrise

Cougar Flat Fire Blowing Up in the Morning

Level 3 evacuation notices were going out to more areas in the valley throughout the day. Firefighters were having a hard time due to extreme fire behavior.  Mother Nature was definitely not cooperating as the temps were nearing triple digits. Structures were already being consumed by the hungry flames barreling down the valley.  The main highway south out the valley was shut down as the fire jumped the river and the road.

By late afternoon, the power in the Methow Valley was shut off when the Cougar Flat fire jumped the main highway highway going east out of the valley and burned close to the main transmission lines. If firefighters needed to be in the area, the power company didn't want to exposure them to live wires. It didn't take long for the fire to reach the power poles and burn up several miles of lines.

Cougar Flat Fire Moving to the South & Destroying the Power Lines

My stress level was starting to rise as the fires grew in intensity. It is bad enough dealing with a wildfire. It is compounded when you are far away and can only pray that things are okay at home.

The Stokes Road and French Creek fires finally merged and continued the destructive march down the valley towards the towns of Pateros and Brewster along the Columbia River. Residents of both towns were given Level 3 notices to get out quick!

MODIS - Carlton Complex - 7/17/14 @ 7 PM

The fire finally reached Pateros by nightfall leaving a swath of devastation in its wake. And things weren't over yet.

Not only was there no power at home, all communication services with the exception of Verizon Wireless went out. No landline long distance calls, no internet, no AT&T wireless, no text messages -- just silence. It was going to be a sleepless night for me as communication with home ceased in the nighttime hours.

What would the morning bring?


  1. That is horribly fascinating. Were it not for the fact that we know you are OK, it would be heart in mouth terrifying. It is also very well written.

    1. Thanks! I don't recall experiencing something so stressful like this in a long time!

  2. i agree! very great for shots & fun to see after it is all over ... but i can not imagine the fear that comes with it & wondering if your stuff in your precious house is a-ok. nervous indeed. ( :

  3. Oh my gosh this is so frightening ... so awful for you to be away and out of communicatation; cannot wait for the sequel and am so glad we are in a place with decent wifi for a few days/

  4. Sent from my IPAd too soon -- so glad we are in a place where I'll be able to read your followup when you publish it and we're not on the road.

  5. Oh Sally, this had to be incredibly hard on you not being there when these fires were raging. I'm glad to know you are safe.


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