Taylor Bridge fire altered lives, land

MONDAY, SEPT. 10, 2012

People who lost their homes attempt to move on

CLE ELUM – Walking through the ash and debris that was once her home, Cris Ellingson tries to recall what it once held.

Amid the twisted, melted, scorched remains, she struggles to recognize what’s left of antiques, keepsakes and everyday items such as kitchenware.

She picks up a glob of glass and inspects it. “Some things I just can’t remember what they were. They look different now.”

Like dozens of others who lost their homes in the Taylor Bridge fire, Ellingson is trying to get her life back in order.

She’s already looking to rebuild. Pink string is staked around the debris to mark the footprint of the new house she plans. An architect is working on a design.

“You can’t do anything but go on,” she said.

It has been three weeks since the Taylor Bridge fire destroyed 61 homes and ripped across nearly 37 square miles of upper Kittitas County. The fire is now mostly out. The news crews have long left. But for homeowners, firefighters, forest managers, insurance agents and others, the work continues. Lives and landscapes have been profoundly altered.

The smell of smoke still lingers inside much of the fire’s perimeter. The fire didn’t burn everywhere with the same intensity. The heat and spread of the flames varied depending on the wind, fuel and terrain.

Some patches as big as a football field are completely burned. The trees are black and charred. Plants, grasses and other ground cover are gone. Instead, the forest floor is covered with ash that kicks up dust clouds when a person walks through it. Some trees burned completely, leaving only blackened holes behind. Occasionally, smoke can be seen rising from a stump hole. The roots are still smoldering.

Most areas were only partially burned, though. The ground cover might have burned and the bases of the trees are scorched, but their crowns are still green. Some sights are puzzling, like a squat Douglas fir with one side completely burned and the other still green, as if nothing happened.

Like most forest fires, this one burned in a mosaic pattern, and in even the heavily burned areas, vegetation should start returning in the spring, said Rex Reed, a state Department of Natural Resources fire manager who coordinated the battle against the Taylor Bridge fire.

“I’ve always been impressed with how fast nature seems to heal after a forest fire,” he said.

Wildlife will likely bounce back quickly, as well. Firefighters reported finding few dead animals, and while habitat was damaged, little was destroyed, Reed said.

The DNR is working with the Kittitas County Conservation District to stabilize slopes and areas at risk for landslides and flooding.

“As fall rains hit the sites, there’s not going to be the vegetation to absorb the water,” Reed said.

The work includes seeding grass on slopes, spreading straw on stream banks and making sure road culverts are not blocked.

The fire will be used to evaluate the effectiveness of the Department of Natural Resources’ efforts to reduce fuels in the area, state Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark said.

For at least three years, DNR has worked on fuel reduction in the Taylor Bridge fire area, including thinning timber stands, removing dead and dying trees and clearing ground debris.

“There are multiple objectives. One is to protect timber, and second is to protect structures,” Goldmark said.

The best way to protect buildings is for owners to take precautions, such as having only short grass rather than bushes next to a building, and cutting low limbs from nearby trees, he said.

Andrew and Jodi Polak said taking those steps helped save their home on Hart Road near the fire’s origin. The fire destroyed two vehicles and a free-standing garage on their property. It surrounded their house, but did not ignite it.

Before the fire, the Polaks hired a contractor to make their home fire resistant. It was money well spent, Andrew Polak said in a telephone interview.

Their insurance agent, Scott Rollins of State Farm, echoed the sentiment.

“The fire came up and kissed the foundation” but didn’t ignite the house, Rollins said.

His Ellensburg office has processed more than 40 claims for losses from the fire, including six houses that were lost.

There is plenty to haul away before rebuilding can begin. Ellingson has nearly filled three shipping containers with debris. She writes down everything that was lost and that she can remember in a spiral-bound notebook that she calls her “new constant companion.” She’ll use the notebook for her insurance claim.

But how should she record the 8-millimeter films of her late husband’s childhood? She had planned on converting them to DVDs, but hadn’t done it yet.

Sorting through the debris, she found the metal reels that held the film.

“The insurance adjuster tells me everything has a price,” Ellingson said. “I think not.”

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