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In Carlton Complex fire’s wake, orchards survive

Apples, half-deformed from excessive heat, cling to a tree in an orchard Friday in Malott, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland)
Apples, half-deformed from excessive heat, cling to a tree in an orchard Friday in Malott, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland)

Fruit orchards tucked along riverbanks and hillsides in north-central Washington largely escaped damage as massive wildfires raced through the region.

At times during the harshest advances of the blaze, the irrigated and fruit-laden trees were considered by residents as the only hope for stopping the flames.

As the Carlton Complex fire on Wednesday continued to move away from populated areas of the scenic Methow Valley, orchardists assessing the damage found their crops, for the most part, unscathed.

Fruit tree experts and growers agree that thanks to the trees’ natural thirst for heavy irrigation, the fire could not penetrate more than a few rows of trees.

“The orchard would pretty well serve as a buffer,” said Bruce Grim, president of the Washington State Horticultural Association.

But that thirst could also create a challenge for growers: Irrigation requires electricity.

“Assuming the orchards were not damaged by fire, the fact that you couldn’t get your pump to run would be a concern,” Grim said.

Widespread power outages left much of the region dark on Wednesday. An estimated 7,000 people, mainly along lines extending from Twisp to Pateros and Brewster to Malott, remained without power, according to the Okanogan County Public Utility District. It could take weeks in some areas to restore power, said PUD spokesman Dan Boettger, though the power company hopes to turn on the lights in Twisp and Pateros this weekend.

Gebbers Farms, one of the largest apple orchards, committed its own resources in fighting the fire, spokesman Robert Grandy said. By Saturday, the company was back to full operation on its 5,000 acres of orchard, as well as at its warehouses and fruit shipping facilities.

For its orchards in Pateros, where fires knocked out power in the entire town, the company brought in portable generators to operate irrigation pumps. It also moved its fruit supply in Pateros to storage facilities in Brewster, which did not lose power.

Grandy said the cherry harvest, which the fire interrupted, carried on: “The 2014 cherry crop … continues to be an extremely high quality crop,” he wrote in a news release distributed Saturday.

Some smaller orchards were slower to get generators. John Richardson, of Booth Canyon Orchards in Carlton, said he was waiting for electricians to install a second 6.5-kilowatt generator a friend brought over from Cashmere. Flames had come within a mile of the 8-acre orchard, which serves farmers markets and various restaurants in the Seattle area, Richardson said.

“We’re scrambling, but we’re OK,” he said. “But it’s time to irrigate – now.”

Smoke dense enough to blot out the sun for days – such as that from the Carlton Complex fire – can delay maturity and affect fruit quality, Richardson said, adding he luckily has seen no such problems yet.

Grim said he has never heard of wildfires causing smoke damage in tree fruit. For 30 years, he owned an orchard near Entiat, about 30 miles south of some of the Carlton fire’s worst destruction. He remembers picking pears, he said, as the Dinkelman fire of 1988 came over a nearby hill.

“I don’t think that’s really a concern at all,” he said, adding that with the searing temperatures recently, dense smoke “actually may help the sunburn situation by not having the sun’s hot rays getting through there.”

Okanogan County’s 40,000 people depend on the orchard industry, the staple of the region’s agricultural sector that makes up about 45 percent of the county’s total workforce and earns about 28 percent of the wages. In July, during cherry harvest, more than 10,000 agricultural laborers typically work in Okanogan County, according to state data.

On Wednesday, more than 2,500 personnel were battling the blaze, which has scorched 250,136 acres, or 390 square miles, making it the largest fire in Washington’s recorded history.

Officials reported 153 homes lost, mostly in Pateros and Alta Lake. One person, a retired state patrol officer, died of a heart attack while trying to save his home.

Heavy rains on Wednesday both helped and delayed fire crews, who were pulled from the front line at 3 p.m. due to thunderstorms and penny-size hail. The complex was reported to be 52 percent contained by late Wednesday, up from 16 percent.

President Barack Obama declared an emergency for Washington state, authorizing the Federal Emergency Management Agency to assist state and local officials as needed.

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Then and Now: Comstock Park

James M. Comstock, born in 1838 in Wisconsin, arrived in Spokane in time to witness the great fire of 1889 and start Spokane Dry Goods with Robert Paterson. It became the Crescent, Spokane’s premier department store for a century. He also worked in real estate and owned other businesses. He served a term as Spokane mayor, starting in 1899. James Comstock died in 1918.