TWISP – As summer turns to fall in Central Washington, residents are preparing to fight the third “F” disaster of 2014. First fires. Then flood. Now FEMA.
The Methow Valley and the apple-centric communities of Pateros and Brewster lost some 353 homes to the firestorms that began in mid-July. The fires weren’t fully under control on Aug. 14 when heavy rains pushed slurries of mud, ash, gravel and rocks down scorched hillsides, breaking irrigation dams, turning creeks into rivers, flattening buildings and washing out roadways.
Residents who would normally welcome autumn rains to green up parched meadows now worry about more slides from another downpour or from a quick snow melt next spring.
“The devastation is not like anything we’ve ever experienced,” Twisp Mayor Soo Ing-Moody said. “It has a cascading effect on business.”
To help replace some of the ruined infrastructure, lost homes and damaged property, Washington state filed several requests with the Federal Emergency Management Agency for disaster relief. FEMA said yes to help on damaged roads, power lines and other public infrastructure, but no to individual disaster aid to families, in part because it said much of those losses were covered by insurance.
The refusal stunned residents and local officials. “We are a close-knit community, but we cannot do this alone,” Ing-Moody said.
The state appealed, and last week Gov. Jay Inslee wrote a 13-page letter to President Barack Obama, arguing the damage from the fire was greater than initially estimated at the beginning of August and the insurance coverage less. But the track record for FEMA to change its mind once disaster aid to individuals is denied is not encouraging. The agency doesn’t keep that data, but the incidents listed on its website show it is rare.
The appeal also doesn’t include damage from the mudslides prompted by the Aug. 14 rainstorm, even though the slides are a result of heavy rains on denuded hillsides. The “incident period” for the state’s initial disaster request, filed before the storm, covers July 9 to Aug. 5. FEMA looks at the mudslide as a separate incident.
Lee Webster said he’d never seen fire move the way it did around Brewster last July. The city’s part-time mayor is also a full-time emergency medical service worker for the local fire district, and while he doesn’t fight fires, he’s been on hand for many over the last 13 years. When he talked to commanders who came in to manage firefighting efforts, he discovered that many of them hadn’t, either. At its height, they estimated the aggressive and erratic fire was advancing 10 acres a second, and Brewster, a city of about 2,400 people, was in its path.
Homes north of U.S. 97 were evacuated, including the hill where the hospital is located, as the fire burned toward the city limits. It would likely have moved inside the city if Gebbers Farms, a major orchard and farming operation in the area, hadn’t marshaled its sprinklers and heavy equipment to stop the advance, Webster said. “They won’t blow their own horn, but I will,” he said.
The fire destroyed 47 homes in and around Brewster, and 111 in nearby Pateros, roughly half the homes in the town of less than 700. More than half of the homes destroyed in the two communities were uninsured, the state says in its appeal to FEMA, and some of the others were underinsured for the losses they sustained. The rental market was tight even before the market, and some of the fire victims still live in trailers, recreational vehicles and tents some two months after the fires.
“It’s been a bitter pill to swallow when you consider the amount of loss,” Webster said of the FEMA denial. “I think it’s unconscionable to allow this kind of thing in our own country, considering how much money is shipped out of the country in foreign aid.”
The state and local governments are trying to “jump through the hoops” to get the federal government to reconsider, he said. Meanwhile, volunteers from the community, and many of the surrounding communities, have stepped up to help.
In a fire, you lose everything
The table at the entrance to the Pateros Relief Center has six clipboards people can sign if they are offering or needing assistance. They can donate furniture or goods, offer to remove debris, say they need food or have livestock that need feed or care; the last one is for “miscellaneous needs.”
The center fills the shell of an old IGA supermarket. Rows of shelves are stacked to the ceiling with donated home supplies and racks of clothes sized for women, children and men. Some were donated by local businesses, others by individuals who drop them off in small bundles or pickup loads. The goods are piled into homemade shelves or storage units made from old apple crates.
When fire or flood victims come into the center, they’re told to take a box and pick up what they need. No payment, no questions.
While large aid agencies like the Red Cross ask donors to give cash, the relief center was willing to take goods and quickly had so many items they filled the old store, with overflow in a donated warehouse.
“There’s nothing that we didn’t get,” volunteer Grace Cavazos said as she walked up and down the aisles that have everything from disposable diapers and baby supplies to back-to-school supplies to food and kitchen utensils. There are camping supplies for those still living in tents – between 30 and 60 families still are, local officials estimate – pet food, cleaning supplies and bedding. “In a fire, you lose everything, so we try to get everything we think they would need.”
Cavazos knows that from experience. In 1984, an electrical fire destroyed her family’s home and the community helped them get back on their feet. Their home in Brewster survived this summer’s fires but when the call went out for volunteers Cavazos jumped in. “I think of those I didn’t know who helped me,” she said.
She’s at the center most days and is sometimes the only volunteer who speaks Spanish and can help the Hispanic families coming in. She plans to keep coming in as long as the center is needed. Local officials think that may be another 18 months.
Mike Sarratt and his wife, Valerie, were evacuated from their rural home south of Twisp twice this summer. The first was in July when the fire raged on the hills behind their home on Benson Creek Drive and the fire line to Brewster was built across part of their property.
The fires reduced the underbrush and organic matter on the ground known as duff to ash, and when they returned Sarratt still had to watch the hillsides for fires that would smolder in the root systems and be sparked to life by wind. Firefighters said it might be that way until the first snowfall in the winter, but they hadn’t counted on the downpour of Aug. 14. It put out the smoldering fires but also sent the exposed ash, dirt, sand, gravel and rocks down the hillsides and quickly filled up the creek beds. Benson Creek, normally a trickle in late summer, became a torrent as it swept past the Sarratts’ home and rose to within an inch of their front door’s threshold.
It destroyed his irrigation system, pulled the iron gate from the entrance to his driveway and carried it about 100 feet until wrapping it around some trees about eight feet off the ground. Sarratt, who was outside, was knocked over and carried into his lower pasture until he managed to use the pick ax he was holding to anchor himself to the ground.
“It was pretty horrifying. But we didn’t lose the house, so we were lucky,” said the retired railroad engineer. “We’re just grateful we survived it all and that we got some amazing help from some amazing people.”
Family, friends and total strangers have come to help with cleanup of the house and garage when they returned from a second evacuation. But pastureland is buried under the mixture of mud, sand and ash. The four cows the Sarratts had bought in hopes of starting a small cattle operation are for sale, but there are no takers. They’ll likely keep them over the winter and have to buy feed.
‘We’re still here’
The torrent raced down Benson Creek Drive, swamping houses, uprooting fences, toppling trailers and sheds and spilling over onto any lowlands. Its destruction was hit or miss. One of things it mostly missed was the recreational marijuana farm about a mile from state Highway 153.
Some call the collection of five parcels with state marijuana growing permits “The Fortress” because of its high wooden fencing topped with security cameras. Others just call it “the big pot farm.”
The first load of marijuana plants showed up to be planted in the first subleased plot as the fire was just starting. It burned in the forest to the south and down the hillside to the north, Tom Hodo, who owns one of the subleased parcels, said, and owners and workers stayed to set up the grow operations and fight the fires. They doubted that fire crews would save the marijuana if the fires spread into the pot farm, and some people in the area unhappy with the new enterprise wouldn’t be sad to see them get burned out, said Aaron Dunlap, owner of another parcel.
Anyone looking for divine intervention to stop recreational marijuana won’t find it in the fires and floods. The fires didn’t reach the Fortress, and the slurry of debris only buried one plot that hadn’t yet been planted. The empty pen stopped most of the dirt and debris.
“We’re OK,” Hodo said last week as he was inspecting plants that will be harvested in the coming weeks. “We’re still here.”
Although they didn’t have much damage, Hodo said he’s amazed that FEMA denied aid to other residents of the Valley, which had high unemployment even before the fires. Data in the letter Inslee sent supporting the appeal bears that out. The unemployment rate of affected areas in May was 7.5 percent, more than 25 percent higher than the state average, and their per capita income of $40,974 is more than 40 percent below the state average.
The Methow Valley doesn’t have a big factory with a large number of full-time workers, said Jerome Thiel, whose home was surrounded by mud from the slide. Instead it relies on what he calls “micro commerce” – people working out of their homes, supplementing their incomes with artwork or crafts, splitting their time between work in town and small farming operations. The effects of the fires and mudslides are going to be felt throughout the economy for years to come, said Thiel, who runs a print shop in Winthrop.
Thiel has fire insurance, but no flood insurance, a situation he believes many of the people throughout the Valley share. Some are trying to argue the two are so connected they should be covered.
“Had the fire not happened, the flood and mudslide would not have happened. They’re definitely intertwined,” he said.
Rep. Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda, whose district includes much of the affected area, thinks FEMA also should take into account the overall losses for the same reason, even if the state is limited in its appeal to the request it filed before the mudslide occurred. Without the fires, the rains of Aug. 14 would have been just a normal summer cloudburst, he said.
The federal government needs to look at the mudslide as the aftermath of the fires the way it considers the aftermath of big hurricanes to coastal cities, he said.