CONCONULLY, Wash. – When fire came over Funk Mountain to the north and headed toward Conconully on the evening of Aug. 18, most residents and visitors fled this small fishing resort town north of Omak.
But a week later – despite losing electricity and telephones – firefighters and a group of residents are still here, hoping to save their town from the fire still burning toward them from another direction of the Okanogan Complex.
Landline phone service is back, but power is not.
Zac Claussen, the town’s volunteer fire chief who doubles as Conconully’s public works superintendent, said other than firefighters, “Nobody should be here.”
But some people in this town of 220 just won’t leave, so he uses a whiteboard at the fire hall to track who’s here and who’s not.
Tom Orr, who moved to Conconully 23 years ago after retiring from the Coast Guard, said the fire hasn’t gotten close enough to persuade him to leave.
“If it gets up there on the top of that ridge, I’ll leave,” he said, pointing toward the west.
Orr said he stayed partly to help protect his home. He said he has confidence in the firefighters, especially Conconully’s volunteer force of 15 and the 20 firefighters from Okanogan County Fire District 9, which covers the area surrounding Conconully. In recent days, he’s seen reinforcements.
At first, resources were scarce. The fire started in the Aug. 14 lighting storm, and fire officials agree it began as a single lightning strike on Shallow Mountain.
“The fire district that’s surrounding us, they’ve been huffing and puffing since then,” Claussen said.
District 9 Chief Tim Tugaw said one of his members called in the fire, but it was on the top of a mountain and too steep for them to respond. Without air support, the fire took off.
“From there, we’ve been running the whole week,” he said, adding, “We’re all volunteers, and we’ve all been out of work for a week.”
Mayor Sam Martin said he wanted to stay to support his fire crews and so he can see firsthand what happens to his town.
Although the effort was going well, he said, “It would be a lot better if we had power and water, and if the smoke would lift,” he said.
Resident Dennis Papa left on Aug. 18, when he saw 100-foot flames over Funk Mountain.
“Things were at a pretty high pitch, and for a little while, it looked grim, it really did,” he said. “But then word came there was a break, that we could make it through.”
He said he was with a steady stream of traffic driving out, with fire on both sides of the road. “
If you had car failure, you’d be in trouble,” he said. “It was a wall of flames. I never thought I’d live through anything like it.”
Papa said he came back the next day and decided to stay.
He said he knows it’s still dangerous, as the fire is active on Peacock Mountain and could still come into town.
But, he said, “We want to support them. If we want to save this town, we’ve got to pitch in.”
Sisters DeVona and Mary Ellen Gibson also came back Monday to check on things. The Gibsons are lifelong Conconully residents. Their father built the Conconully General Store, and their mother was a schoolteacher.
It isn’t the first time Conconully’s been threatened, DeVona said.
“We had the flood in 1948. I was 6,” she said. Water ran through the streets, she said, but the town was fine.
Now, even with a huge fire still burning just outside of town, Gibson said she’s not too worried.
“Maybe I’m being Pollyanna,” she said, “but we’ll be fine.”
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