BREWSTER, Wash. – The devastating wildfire that has displaced hundreds of people and burned about 150 homes in north-central Washington slowly moved away from populated areas Sunday, 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 Pateros, 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,” she said of the shelter.
Red Cross also operated shelters, serving 170 registered people in six locations, officials said. Widespread power outages continued throughout the Methow Valley.
A community meeting with emergency officials Sunday night at Brewster High School became heated when several people shouted that fire crews had not done enough to protect their homes. Others said authorities had not notified them to evacuate and they had barely made it out before the fire.
Officials expressed regret and sympathy with those who had lost their homes. They blamed communication problems on the fire’s ferocity and lack of resources.
“Hands down, we failed you on the information side,” said Michael Liu of the U.S. Forest Service.
Deep in the forest along Gold Creek, Alex Ogilvie felt the same frustrations with lack of information and action. Ogilvie, who along with his brother Patrick has worked as a caretaker of an original homestead for 20 years, said helicopters dropping water repeatedly missed their target. “Back burns” – small fires set to create a buffer zone ahead of the wildfire – had spiraled out of control, he added.
On Sunday, Ogilvie filled trash cans with water, prepared to fight falling embers with plastic water cannons. 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.
“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.”
With authorities overwhelmed, others stepped up to help. 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, Washington, 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 some 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 has continually suffered utility damage.
Maureen Smith, of Twisp, said electricity is the biggest need, especially for those near the fires. Smith said she has continually watered vegetation around her house to dampen the fire should it come close. But since she lost power and then water pressure, “it’s starting to get brown.”
“If we had water, we could protect our homes,” Smith said.
Officials said Sunday that a retired state patrol officer had died of a heart attack, and another firefighter was transported to a hospital for treatment.