Friday, August 21, 2015

Fire Update: Hitting Close to Home

The fires continue to take all our attention. This is by far the worst fire season anyone around here can remember.

On Wednesday night the highway south to Omak, where my daughter and grandson live, was closed because of the advancing fire. On Thursday the word was that a detour had been set up, so I determined to drive to Omak and check in with my daughter.

I zagged where the detour zigged and climbed up onto the old highway for the last few miles into Omak. It took me right through the burn zone. As you can see, the entire valley there has burned or is burning.

I made it into Omak safely. Lidia and Sebastian were fine, and Omak has still dodged the evacuation orders that have emptied the countryside all around it. I felt better knowing that I could reach them if I needed to.

On the way home I stopped in Riverside, the beleaguered town that was evacuated the night before. I watched the copters with their bambi buckets still dousing flames right at the highway.

It was good to see them at work. They have been one of the last lines of defense, as the big planes have not been able to fly because of the low visibility.

I continued on home on the detour that took me through the sage flats and a post-apocalyptic world I almost didn't recognize.

That evening I went outside to see what was going on--a habit that many have developed around here. I looked to the south, the direction that has held the biggest threat all week. I was struck again by the sun eclipsed by smoke. Otherwise all looked quiet.

I went inside and began checking, for the fiftieth time that day, the Facebook postings of the Okanogan County Emergency Management Services. That's another habit now. (They deserve a medal. They have been posting updates and alerts 24 hours-a-day since the fires began.) I saw that the fire to our east was now the focus of attention.

It had been burning quietly all week, but now it was on the move. First, a valley up on the flats was being evacuated. Then the fire jumped the highway that leads east out of our town, and people were being evacuated from all areas north and east of town. I didn't see an evacuation order for the town itself.

A few minutes later my son got home. He had been in town with friends. "Are you packing?" he asked us. We just looked at him for a moment. "Are they evacuating?" we asked. He was frustrated with our obtuseness. "Well," he answered, "I saw people coming out of their houses carrying suitcases, loading them in their cars, and driving out of town in a big hurry. What do you think?"

I went outside again to see what I could see from our house. It's not that I didn't believe my son, but at moments like that I require visual confirmation. This time I looked east. And there it was, a towering plume of smoke. Speaking of blow-ups.

I got back on the OCEMS page and they had posted the evacuation notice for our town fifteen minutes before.

You never think you, yourself, will actually have to evacuate, but when the time comes there's no question about it. We learned our lessons here from the wildfires last summer that devastated the little town of Pateros, just 60 miles down the highway from us. 

We packed some things--Kim had already packed two days ago--and were finally ready to leave. We had a small pile of belongings in the back of the van. Everything else, home and possessions, we would leave to the mercy of the fire. (I packed some rods and reels, my vest, a gear bag--and my new hat. I would still be able to fish in the new world that would rise from the ashes.)

We would head south to Omak to make sure we weren't cut off from Lidia and Sebastian. Just a half mile down the road we saw the flames stretching all along the ridgeline and moving our way. We didn't look back.

We stayed in Omak last night. By this morning the evacuation of our area had been lifted. We got ready to go home. The wind was blowing hard as we looked over Omak from the front porch of where we stayed. There was a whole town down there, but the smoke was thicker than ever. The wind was blowing from the north, pushing all the smoke down the valley into Omak and points south.

We headed for home and eventually drove right out of the smoke. It was a relief to breathe clean air.

Our house and our town were fine. The strong winds had turned the fire away. We were among the lucky ones this time. But every one of us is thinking of all those who have not been so lucky.

As I was writing this I went outside again. The fires to the south are still burning.

There are still fires along the ridges to the east.

But the immediate danger is over. I'll keep checking the OCEMS reports. And I'll keep going outside to check--looking in every direction now.

Like I just did. The fire to the east is going through its changes. I'll keep an eye on it.

Meanwhile, until the wind changes--which it might--we can rest easy for awhile.


  1. Glad you and your kids are doing OK. Got my fingers crossed for you.

  2. Hope Mother Nature gives you guys some rain to help in fighting all of those fires. Glad to hear it seems to have missed your immediate area anyway. It's got to feel like you're always looking over your shoulder expecting to see it headed your way with all that's going on, like Mark I'll keep my fingers crossed as well.