Thursday, August 7, 2014

Firestorm 2014 - Part 2, The Inferno

Friday morning, July 18th, I woke up and first thing I did was check my fire sites. What had happened while I was sleeping?

MODIS - Carlton Complex - 7/18/14 @ 3 AM

A majority of the news stations were reporting on the fire sweeping through the town of Pateros and the Alta Lake area, burning down several homes in the process. Not much mention was made about the fire and the damage farther north. The day before, the Seattle stations were talking more about the smaller Chiawaukum fire near Leavenworth than the Carlton Complex fire that quickly turned into Washington state's largest fire in history. Now they sent their reporters to Pateros to survey the damage and interview residents. Even the governor showed up.

The fire was showing no signs of abating. It kept growing and growing! 

MODIS - Carlton Complex - 7/18/14 @ 7 AM

I was at work trying to concentrate but failing miserably. I was very concerned about what was going on near home. The fact that I hadn't gotten any texts or calls by the normal time was also making me super anxious. Get some work done? No way, I couldn't focus on that.

I turned to social media - facebook and twitter - searching and asking for information on what was happening fire-wise in the Twisp area. Info was very limited. Not reassuring at all!

Finally, around 11:15 a.m., I got a call from home. I thought the phone lines were down because I tried several times to call home with no success. It was a huge relief to hear George's voice, but the relief was short lived. Things were not looking good.

I started mapping out a plan for getting home from the Wenatchee airport the next day. Highways 97 and 153 heading north were closed and so was Highway 20 from Okanogan. The only way into the Methow Valley was Highway 20 from the west side of the Cascades, an 8 hour, 350 mile detour made worse by the fact Highway 2 heading west from Wenatchee was closed due to the Chiawaukum fire and there was road construction on I-90 near Seattle. Traffic would be horrendous! I would have to check road closures before departing Seattle for Wenatchee and hope for the best.

We made plans to touch base later in the day and I tried once again to get some work done. My travel plans had me spending the night in Fargo, North Dakota before flying out the next morning. I received one more short call from home on the drive to Fargo before radio silence once again set in. Now the phone lines and internet were definitely out. 911 service wasn't even working in the valley.

At the hotel in Fargo, I went back to monitoring my fire websites and social media for updates. MODIS showed the fire creeping closer and closer to Twisp. I knew residents had been put on Level 2 evacuation notices including where our house was.

Meanwhile, the fire was also raging east towards the towns of Malott and Okanogan and Level 3 notices were issued. Were the firefighters ever going to be able to get a handle on this inferno?

MODIS - Carlton Complex - 7/18/14 @ 7 PM

I finally went to bed, fraught with worry, and it was yet another restless night.

Saturday morning dawned bright and beautiful in Fargo. I had an hour or so to kill before going to the airport and I remembered a church in West Fargo less than ten miles from where I was that I wanted to photograph. It would take my mind off of the fires at home. How ironic that during the night, the church caught on fire due to an apparent electrical issue. The interior was gutted and there was some minor damage on the exterior. (I googled this once I got home to see why a fire truck showed up while I was photographing the church from the other side of the fence. It had been called in for a hot spot inside.)

Back in the Methow however, the fire continued to threaten Twisp. I learned after getting home the approaching flames could be easily seen from our house as it burned on Balky Hill across the valley floor. I also learned that several fire trucks were positioned on the edge of town facing the fire ready to pump out a wall of water to protect our tiny town. They were fire engines from the west side of the Cascade mountains and were geared for fighting structure fires in cities, not brush trucks that can go off-road like we have locally. Regardless, these firefighters that came from all over were doing what they could to save homes and lives.

MODIS - Carlton Complex - 7/19/14 @ 7 AM

By the time I landed in Seattle in the early afternoon hours, conditions were improving. At some point during the day, a DC-10 air tanker was brought in and laid down a line of retardant, providing a much needed fire break for the Cougar Flats fire in the Balky Hill area and also east of Twisp.  You can see in the snapshot below the red disappearing from the Cougar Flats fire. I do not know if the air tanker assisted with other areas of the fire.

MODIS - Carlton Complex - 7/19/14 @ 1 PM

I checked for road closures before departing the Wenatchee airport. Highway 153 had re-opened although there was a question about Highway 97 south of Pateros being closed again due to blowing ash affecting visibility. I took a leap of faith and went for it. Luckily, the highways were open and I made it safely home. Driving up valley on 153 was heart wrenching. The landscape was completely changed from when I drove down through there just six days earlier. It made me cry.

Upon reaching home, I burst out in tears once again, my nerves shattered from the past few days and grateful to be home with George.

Next, the aftermath.


  1. Amazing. Gripping. I don't know how you managed to work while all this was going on.

  2. Interesting post and maps,greeting from Belgium

  3. gutwrenching. the maps show the incredible spread. i cannot imagine the firefighters throughout this...

  4. I'm sure I couldn't have worked with all this unknowing going on. Glad you got home safe.

  5. This makes me feel terrible. Hang in there...


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