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Relief effort begins in charred Methow Valley

Alex Ogilvile embraces his son, Kyson King, after King and his wife Felicia helped him clear his land of brush Sunday on Gold Creek near Carlton, Wash.  (Tyler Tjomsland)
Alex Ogilvile embraces his son, Kyson King, after King and his wife Felicia helped him clear his land of brush Sunday on Gold Creek near Carlton, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland)

BREWSTER, Wash. – The devastating wildfire that has displaced hundreds of people and burned 150 to 200 homes in north-central Washington slowly moved away from populated areas today, allowing for a massive relief effort to begin.

The Carlton Complex fires fanned most intensely through rugged terrain near the communities of Carlton and Twisp. As of Sunday the fire had scorched almost 300,000 acres, or about 470 square miles, of the scenic Methow Valley, officials said.

Firefighters shifted their attention from defending structures to suppressing the blaze. For the communities of Brewster and Petaros, the focus turned from fighting fire to helping those who had lost everything.

“You can tell whose house burned down when they walk in,” said Val Burgett, volunteer in a makeshift shelter for fire victims in Brewster. “They just have this daze.”

The community faces massive relief efforts in the coming weeks, with little or no rental spaces and hotels, Burgett said.

“Life was normal until it came over the hill,” said Allie Burgett, Val’s daughter. “This is home to some people right now.”

Red Cross also operated shelters, serving 170 registered people in six locations, officials said. Widespread power outages continued throughout the Methow Valley.

Deep in the forest along Gold Creek, the threat remained real. Alex Ogilvie, who along with his brother Patrick has worked as a caretaker of an original homestead for 20 years, said they had been told to evacuate days ago as flames from the original lightning strike crept down a ridge high above their home.

The fire had blackened the forest up to their property line before the wind shifted and they fought it away with garden hoses. Now, smoke billowed from the opposite hillside.

They expressed some frustration with firefighting efforts. Helicopters dropping water have repeatedly missed their target, Ogilvie said, and fires authorities have lost control of “back burns,” small fires deliberately set to create a buffer zone ahead of the actual fire.

On Sunday, smoke billowed from the opposite hillside, and Ogilvie filled trash cans with water, prepared to fight falling embers with plastic water cannons.

“This is everything we got. If this goes, we go,” he said as a tree exploded on the hill behind him. “We’re at the mercy of the wind.”

Carlton General Store has stayed open 24 hours a day since Wednesday and appeared to be the only open store in the area. It became a destination for those who needed fuel, food and water.

“I’m not making any money,” said store owner Jeff Lyman, standing next to his generators he hauled from Auburn, a seven-hour roundtrip. “We’re just trying to make sure everybody has something down here.”

But updates on the fire were hard to come by, and those near Carlton and Twisp seeking more information on the fire came up empty. The message board outside the store displayed a map of the fire that was two days old and an information phone line that was disconnected.

Maureen Smith, of Twisp, said electricity was the biggest need, especially for those near the fires. Smith said she had been watering vegetation around her house should the fire come too close. But since she lost water pressure, “they’re starting to get brown.”

“If we had water, we could protect our homes,” she said.

Officials continue to report no deaths or major injuries.