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Fire claims hundreds of homes, cattle

Dan Wheat

Capital Press

The largest wildfire in Washington history is mostly contained but losses are still being tallied and the number of dead cattle alone is estimated at 700 to 1,000.

TWISP, Wash. — Flames of the 250,000-acre Carlton Complex Fire are finally receding but have claimed an estimated 300 homes, 700 to 1,000 head of cattle, thousands of acres of rangeland and at least 100 acres of tree fruit orchards.

Jack Field, executive vice president of the Washington Cattlemen’s Association in Ellensburg, figures 700 to 1,000 cows and calves died in the fire.

He said county and state officials stepped up efforts to bury the dead cattle in mass graves to prevent disease and reduce the attraction of wolves and cougars.

Brand inspectors from the Washington State Department of Agriculture were busy recording ear tags, brands and taking pictures of dead cattle, he said, because it was important to document the losses so owners can file claims with insurance companies and the USDA Farm Service Agency’s livestock indemnification program.

The top priority was burying carcasses from small acreages near towns but dead cattle on large, higher elevation U.S. Forest Service grazing allotments will also be buried, he said.

The fire was ignited by lightning near Twisp on July 14 and by July 17 became a firestorm racing down the Methow Valley and cross country to the Columbia River and the towns of Pateros and Brewster. An estimated 1,000 homes were evacuated and 300 were destroyed.

As of July 29, the fire was 66 percent contained. Some 3,085 personnel were working to control the fire, which enveloped 250,806 acres, making it the largest in state history.

The fire cut off electricity to 7,000 customers for 10 days at its peak but by July 29 power had been restored to all but 900 customers in the more remote locations, said Dan Boettger, director of environmental and regulatory affairs at Okanogan County Public Utility District. He said it might be several more weeks before power is restored to all customers.

Miles of transmission and distribution lines were destroyed or damaged and the PUD was seeking federal assistance to cover costs estimated in the tens of millions of dollars, Boettger said.

The PUD assigned a crew to help orchardists and ranchers hook up generators to power irrigation pumps.

“The impact to agriculture is pretty devastating across the board, from cattle to orchards,” Boettger said. “Restoring water to orchards, pastures and livestock is a goal.”

Kevin Stennes, co-owner of one of the larger orchards in the lower Methow Valley, said his family lost about 25 out of 350 acres of pear orchards, three to four miles of deer fencing and $120,000 worth of empty bins awaiting harvest. The bins were owned by a packing company.

Orchards were mostly singed around their edges, with trees burning a few rows in. Stennes said about 75 acres in the lower Methow and more north of Pateros on Buckhorn Mountain and in Indian Dan Canyon were lost.

Of greater concern was restoring irrigation for thousands of acres of orchards with pear and apple harvest just weeks away. The Stenneses had eight generators powering orchard pumps.

“Right now is a key time apples and pears need to be irrigated every day for good quality and fruit size. Loss of water stresses trees,” said Kirk Mayer, manager of the Washington Growers Clearing House Association in Wenatchee.

A few days without water stresses trees and may result in smaller fruit but it shouldn’t do lasting damage to trees, said Tim Smith, Washington State University Extension tree fruit specialist in Wenatchee.

It’s all a matter of degrees, he said, with more damage the longer orchards go without water. Trees can recover from light damage but the more heavily damaged trees will be removed and replanted, Smith said.

That entails losses of production a grower can’t recover, he said. Any insurance or federal program would only cover a portion of costs, he said.

Stennes said catastrophic insurance, not crop insurance, should cover his family’s losses.

Gebbers Farms in Brewster, the largest tree fruit company in Okanogan County and one of the largest cattle operations, would not comment on losses. But Jack Field, of the cattlemen’s association, said Gebbers “is right up there” in loss of cattle and rangeland.

Vic Stokes, president of the cattlemen’s association and a Twisp rancher, was hardest hit on rangeland, losing 80 to 90 percent of it, Field said.

Stokes’ son, Kent, said their cattle count is 107 dead, 25 injured, 150 healthy and 125 missing. They had to kill two.

“We rode the range the past week rounding up cattle and counting the dead,” Kent Stokes said. “Riders came from the Columbia Basin to help. Now we’re doctoring the injured.

“We haven’t been up Finley Mountain yet. I’m sure we would find more carcasses there. A heifer with burned feet came in on her own yesterday. That’s pretty remarkable because she traveled so far.”

They used a portable corral in gathering the others and hauling them home by trailer rather than herding them through five or six miles of burned terrain, full of downed and burned timber in places. At home, they turned the cattle out onto a field of green alfalfa that survived the fire.

“Hopefully, we’ll use no more than a third of that and still get a second cutting on the rest,” Stokes said.

The Stokeses lost a stack of 150 tons of alfalfa to the fire, saved two others and lost one of their four houses.

A veterinarian was helping tend the injured with antibiotics and anti-inflammatories for pain and to ward off infections. Field said Zoetis Co. donated pharmaceuticals.

Stokes said they have not had time to consider their options for replacing grazing lands.

The U.S. Forest Service could restrict grazing for three to five years on allotments severely burned, Field said.

Field said he is working to get the USFS to allow grazing on portions of allotments not burned and to allow ranchers not fully using allotments elsewhere in the state to take cattle from affected ranches.

Beside grazing plans, there are miles of fences to be rebuilt, he said.



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