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‘Gut-wrenching’ losses in wildfire

Dan Wheat

Capital Press

Fires in Washington's Okanogan County have burned thousands of acres of rangeland, killed livestock, left ranches and orchards without power for irrigation and destroyed homes.

TWISP, Wash. — Forage on thousands of acres of rangeland is gone, cattle are dead and orchards have been damaged by the Carlton Complex Fire that has also claimed 100 to 200 houses and other structures.

As of July 23, the fire was estimated at 250,000 acres, making it the largest in state history. It was 16 percent contained and 2,100 personnel were fighting it. The fire was active but not growing to the southwest in Libby and Gold creeks where crews were trying to push it into the old Buckhorn burn. The fire was holding on the northwestern side between Twisp and Winthrop and was being pushed into the old Tripod burn to the northeast, said Victoria Wilkins, spokeswoman for an interagency fire command near Twisp. Old burns reduce the rate of spread, she said.

A quarter to half-inch of rain wetted areas but not all of the fire zone on July 22, Wilkins said. More rain was expected.

Among the agricultural losses, about a dozen cattle ranchers with U.S. Forest Service grazing allotments appeared hardest hit since they won’t be able to graze those lands for a couple of years. They were still trying to determine the total number of cattle killed in the fire.

Some apple, pear and cherry orchards were damaged, but mostly just their edges were singed as fire sought the path of least resistance and skirted green trees to find dry grass.

The fire also destroyed a large part of Okanogan County’s electrical grid. With electricity knocked out, orchardists and ranchers were using small, gasoline generators to keep refrigerators and freezers running and acquiring larger generators to power irrigation pumps.

The irrigation water is needed for orchard crops and trees, alfalfa and pastures.

It may be a month or more before power is restored to some areas, said Dan Boettger, director of environmental and regulatory affairs for Okanogan County Public Utility District. Generators may be used for irrigation systems but they need to be properly installed so “back feed” doesn’t damage the power system, he said.

Gov. Jay Inslee visited Pateros and Brewster on July 20 and met with PUD officials in Okanogan, Boettger said.

Power transmission lines between Brewster and Pateros, Brewster and Ophir and Okanogan and Twisp are down, as are hundreds of miles of distribution lines, Boettger said.

“Our system has basically evaporated,” he said. “We have areas where the poles, wires and everything is gone. No trace of metal or anything.”

Power crews from neighboring counties were helping and a goal was to restore power to Pateros and irrigation systems between Brewster and Malott by July 26, Boettger said.

A cherry packing line at Apple House in Pateros stopped work because of the power outage, and several truckloads of cherries were lost because they could not be moved because of the fire, said B.J. Thurlby, president of Northwest Cherry Growers, an industry promotional organization in Yakima.

Most cherries along Brewster Flats were picked prior to the fire but elsewhere a couple days of harvest were lost, Thurlby said. Cherry lines in Brewster resumed operations July 20, he said.

Cass Gebbers, president and CEO of Gebbers Farms in Brewster, a large tree fruit and cattle company, said there’s significant loss in dead and maimed cattle and grazing, but the most devastating is loss of homes and possessions.

Gebbers tree fruit packing and storage facilities were not damaged and company orchards were minimally damaged, he said. Fourteen Gebbers employees lost their homes, Thurlby said.

Lightning on July 14 ignited the four fires that make up the Carlton Complex. High temperatures and wind swept the fires down the Methow Valley to Pateros and north of the valley to Brewster the late afternoon of July 17, incinerating many homes.

On July 19, Capital Press counted 28 houses destroyed in Pateros, many more at Alta Lake and numerous others up the lower Methow Valley to Carlton. The valley was burned from Pateros to Carlton but north from there was largely unscathed with surrounding hills burned.

Small generators blared outside many residences. Smoke and the smell of it filled the lower valley.

Stennes Orchards

At Stennes Ochards, 14 miles from Pateros, third-generation grower Keith Stennes, 69, and his twin sons, Kevin and Mark, 32, estimated they’ve lost 20 of the 350 acres of pear orchard they own or manage in the valley. They also have 200 acres near Okanogan and Tonasket.

It costs about $15,000 per acre to replant, and there will be lost revenue in the years before trees are old enough to produce, Kevin said. About $120,000 worth of empty fruit bins, stacked and waiting fall harvest, were burned at their orchards. Packing sheds own the bins and their collective loss will be substantial, he said. Miles of deer fencing around orchards will have to be replaced, he said.

The Stennes family evacuated to Pateros at 7 p.m. July 17 when the fire rolled down the valley, but they returned home because evacuees clogged U.S. Highway 97 heading south to Chelan. They sprayed the roofs of their homes with garden hoses to prevent embers from igniting them.

Kevin and Mark Stennes rode motorbikes to their upper orchard on a hillside bench 300 feet above the houses and valley floor.

“We could hear a sucking sound coming through McFarland Canyon and saw a fireball coming,” Kevin said. “We sat there a few seconds and couldn’t believe it. We took the motorbikes down and told the family to leave.”

This time they fled north, past the fire, to Twisp. Firefighters arrived just after they left and saved their houses, the oldest of which was built by Keith’s grandfather in 1900.

Two days later in that same upper orchard, several rows of young, organic Bartlett and d Anjou pear trees were burned black.

“This is gut-wrenching,” said Keith Stennes, noting the trees were in their fourth year and just beginning to produce.

Other rows of older trees were scorched brown, their fruit ruined. Grass beneath them was singed but not burned. Kevin Stennes figured the fire blew through so fast it didn’t have time to burn.

Ag director impacted

Bud Hover, director of the Washington State Department of Agriculture, was trying to get home to his hay ranch near Winthrop from a Washington Conservation Commission meeting in Okanogan July 17 when the fire closed Highway 20 at Loop Summit. He drove through Brewster and Pateros, before the fire reached there, and up the Methow Valley. It was shortly after noon. He passed through burned terrain on both sides of Highway 153 between Methow and Carlton.

His ranch was fine, and his son was into the second cutting of hay. But by the next day they were out of power and Hover was concerned about the loss of irrigation at his and other ranches.

Stokes Ranch

In Beaver Creek, east of Twisp, rancher Vic Stokes, 60, president of the Washington Cattlemen’s Association, feared the loss of roughly half his 200 mother cows and their calves.

The mothers, bred for next year, are worth about $2,000 apiece, the calves about $1,200 when sold in November.

Stokes and his son, Kent, 27, found 10 pair alive in a small meadow missed by the fire in Finley Canyon. One cow and calf had burned feet. Another pair a mile up canyon died. It would take several days for them to search for the rest of the herd on horseback on their 14,000-acre U.S. Forest Service allotment.

“We could find pockets of live cattle or pockets of dead cattle,” Stokes said. “It will be a bitter pill to swallow when we see dead cattle out there. We know them all. It’s just really tough to see that.”

Fire-damaged fencing needed repairs for any cattle brought home.

Stokes, Kent and daughter-in-law, Abbi, 31, used irrigation sprinklers, garden hoses and shovels to battle the fire. They saved the main house, shop and their other two houses by defending one knoll. An apartment-shop that Kent lives in, up Finley Canyon, was destroyed.

“The wind was blowing smoke so hard that we had to drop to the ground to get a few good breaths,” Kent Stokes said.

Abbi’s husband, Blake, 33, a smoke jumper, was fighting a fire in Grangeville, Idaho. Vic’s wife, Carrie, evacuated with their granddaughter to safety.

“The ferocity of this fire was diabolically phenomenal,” Vic Stokes said. “Winds of 30 to 40 mph pushed it.”

He estimated flames at 20 to 30 feet in height as wind blew them sideways.

“There was tremendous power behind this thing. It took out 30 to 40 acres in a matter of minutes,” he said.

Days of hot, dry weather before the fire created a super heating of air that accelerated its advance, he figured. It created its own weather and was rolling along at such heat that it burned riparian areas of big cottonwood trees in Beaver Creek, he said.

Kent Stokes moved machinery to a greener spot on the ranch to save it and, with neighbors, saved a hay stack. “But doggone it if that fire didn’t come back and get it later,” his father said. “We had our homes to save and other hay stacks.”

The burned stack was 150 tons of feeder alfalfa, valued at $180 to $200 per ton.

Vic Stokes is fourth generation. His great grandfather homesteaded in Beaver Creek in 1903. He said it’s the worst calamity to befall the ranch in his lifetime.

“The Forest Service did an infrared flyover and said our allotment is the most severely hit of all the ones up here,” he said.

He estimates he lost grazing there and probably on most of the 2,500 acres they lease and 1,400 they own. He said eight to 10 other ranchers with USFS allotments and leases from Winthrop to Brewster had losses. One has an allotment of 25,000 acres.

In addition, they’ve all lost miles of fencing, he said.

The biggest need, he said, is electrical power for irrigation critical for growing alfalfa, corn silage and pastures for fall grazing.

“It’s pretty usual to stay off a Forest Service allotment for two years after a fire for things to heal up,” he said. “We will be scratching our heads for where to run our cattle, if we have any left.”

Jack Field, executive vice president of the Washington Cattlemen’s Association in Ellensburg, said he will work with USDA’s Farm Service Agency to free up emergency grazing of Conservation Reserve Program land in adjoining counties.

“The challenge will be having to haul water and building your own hot-wire fencing,” Field said. “The quality of forage might be suspect but when there’s nothing else it might be pretty good.”


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