Like many Lutherans in Spokane, Cheri Nelson has been watching nervously as the Wolverine fire on Lake Chelan creeps closer to the church retreat center known as Holden Village.
As of Thursday, fire was on three sides of the former historic mining town located 10 miles west of the lake, just outside Glacier Peak Wilderness.
“It makes me emotional thinking about it,” said Nelson, community minister at Salem Lutheran Church in Spokane.
If the village is lost to flames, “it would be like losing my own home,” she said.
Holden Village has become a beloved place across the Inland Northwest, both as an all-ages retreat center and as an access point to the rugged and beautiful northern Cascades.
To get there requires travel by ferry, which shuttles up and down the lake from Chelan on the south to Stehekin on the north.
Those going to the village get off the ferry at Lucerne and ride to the village on shuttles.
“I love the beauty of the place,” said the Rev. Ladd Bjorneby, of Lutheran Community Services Northwest. “It’s really national park-quality scenery up there. … I’m hopeful the buildings survive.”
As of Thursday morning, fire had consumed about 58 square miles west of the lake.
The fire was sparked by lightning June 29 near Lucerne. There are nearly 550 firefighters battling the blaze, with the aid of 19 engines, seven water tenders, seven bulldozers and six helicopters.
Village staff wrapped foil around some of the historic wooden buildings in an attempt to protect them.
Three large sprinklers, installed just this year, have been running constantly to dampen the grounds.
Firefighters have been setting controlled burns nearby to try to block the fire’s advance.
Those “burnout operations” have created a black line around the village, official reports on the fire’s progress said Thursday.
The evacuated village is far from safe yet, however. An infrared map taken from the air at night showed the fire virtually at the village’s doorstep Thursday morning.
Forecasters are calling for more thunderstorms with wind gusts to 20 mph today.
But the storms could bring a quarter- to a half-inch of rain by tonight, according to the National Weather Service.
Lutheran Bishop Martin Wells in Spokane and his wife, the Rev. Susan Briehl, spent five years as two of three Holden Village co-directors.
“It was pretty transformational,” he said of his stay there. The couple’s two girls attended a one-room school for year-round residents.
He said the 9-acre village consists of 14 chalets, four dormitories and a village center with gym, bowling alley and ice cream parlor. All were built for crews of the original Howe Sound Mining Co., where copper was mined from 1938 to 1957.
The underground mine at the base of Copper Mountain was one of the largest producers of copper in the U.S. at the time. Holden Village takes its name from the prospector who discovered the copper ore.
Wells said there are probably only two other similar mining towns that remain in the world today, and both are in Europe.
The retreat center has reached out to diverse parts of the Lutheran community, offering annual programs for Spanish-speaking church members mainly from Central Washington, Bjorneby said.
Guests have traveled to Holden Village from around the world, and the retreat is particularly popular with Midwest residents.
After the mine closure in 1957, the mining company donated the village’s buildings to what is now Trinity Lutheran College in Everett. The gift was assumed by the nonprofit Holden Village Inc., which is aligned with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America as a special ministry site, Wells said.
The village operates under permit from the U.S. Forest Service, which owns the land.
Fire is a frequent visitor to the mountains around Lake Chelan, the third-deepest lake in the United States. The flanks show the evidence with standing snags and forest regeneration at various stages of maturity.
“It’s been a hundred years since that valley (along Railroad Creek) burned,” Wells said. “We knew it would come. … It’s a dirty forest with a lot of debris.”
Most of the camp staff and other residents, including workers cleaning up mine contamination, were evacuated two weeks ago. The village residents are staying at a bed-and-breakfast operated by the village on the lake shore and with Lutheran church members in Chelan. Meanwhile, the village is hosting firefighters.
Last Saturday, Salem Lutheran Church in Spokane held a prayer service, with attendees singing “Holden Evening Prayer,” a piece written to honor Holden Village.
For the past two years, the village has suspended its retreat programs while the mine undergoes a $500 million remediation of contamination left behind when it closed.
Rio Tinto, a global mining group based in London, inherited the task of closing the mine after the mining permit passed to other ownerships.
The cleanup includes construction of containment barriers to prevent contaminated mine tailings from getting into Railroad Creek. Pipes were installed in the mine shafts to capture groundwater there. Both sources of water are being diverted into a filtration plant for treatment.
Holden Village has hosted workers during the construction seasons and will likely host them in 2016. As a result, retreat activities would be suspended next year, Wells said.
The village has cooperated with the cleanup to ensure the long-term health of the environment.
Wells said Holden Village has about 5,000 loyal followers who donate money to help fund its operation or turn out for annual work parties.
The mounds of tailings from mining historically have created a natural fire break on the south side of the village.
But if the village burns, it is uncertain whether the Forest Service would continue the permit so the village could be rebuilt, Bjorneby said.
Wells said the village “always was a gift to the church. As a gift, it can be taken as fast as it came.”
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