Many communities across Okanogan County had a brief let-up from fires scorching the region Friday evening.
Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers said the threat to people and homes was lower. In many areas the flames moved away from communities and into heavier timber, he said. Still, he emphasized that the threat wasn’t over.
Still, the Okanogan Complex fires had an active day Friday, prompting officials to order new evacuations and warn that spot fires could start up to 2 miles away from fire lines.
Fire crews began arriving from Australia, New Zealand and the Washington National Guard on Friday.
“It’s going to be a while before these fires are out,” Rogers said. “We still have a lot of country we could burn.”
Rogers said in the town of Okanogan a patch of blue sky was visible for the first time in five days.
“It’s kind of a circle, but we actually drove through a spot where we can look up at a circle,” he said.
Rogers said he’s slept one hour in the last three days.
“When the final blowup was going it was starting to wear on people,” he said. “I mean everybody.”
Phone lines were still down Friday night in Tonasket and Oroville. However, Rogers said, deputies in those towns reported conditions were improving. Twisp and Winthrop don’t have power, he said.
“Where everything is at right now we’re doing pretty good,” he said.
Twisp Mayor Soo Ing-Moody said the fire was still on the outskirts of town, but concentrated air drops throughout the day greatly reduced the risk. She said the sounds of airplanes droning overhead reassured those residents who elected to stay.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency provided Twisp with a generator that city officials are using to operate city wells and pumps, supplying the fire efforts with much-needed water, Ing-Moody said. On Friday morning, the mandatory, Level 3 evacuation warning was downgraded; however the surrounding countryside remained at Level 3. Despite the reduced warning, she said, residents and officials were wary.
“We’re on edge all the time because it’s all dependent on the winds and the available resources,” she said.
Ing-Moody and her staff elected to stay in Twisp, even after the evacuation order was given. “I feel like I go down with the ship,” she said. “This is my town and this is my job.”
On Friday night, the town of Winthrop remained at a Level 3 as did Omak Flats, the Aeneas Valley, Malot and Conconully. Red Cross shelters are open at the Brewster and Tonasket high schools.
Tonasket, which had been ordered to evacuate immediately on Thursday, was downgraded to a Level 2 notice, which means residents should be ready to leave. Okanogan also had a Level 2 notice as did Riverside.
The Okanogan Complex includes five fires that have burned more than 250 square miles.
The Carpenter Road fire in southwestern Stevens County grew to nearly 30,000 acres today, said Randall Rishe, spokesman for the fire. The majority of the growth occurred when the fire jumped Sand Creek Road. However, firefighters were able to catch and contain the fire, he said. Ground efforts were aided by air support, which started Friday afternoon. The smoke was beneficial in a way because it limited the oxygen supply, making the fires easier to fight , Rishe said.
U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers met with fire officials at the Carpenter Road fire command post in Fruitland on Friday morning. She said she was encouraged by President Barack Obama’s disaster declaration and the amount of coordination between firefighters at the local, state and federal levels.
“I’m encouraged that he responded so quickly,” McMorris Rodgers said of Obama. The president made the declaration less than a day after McMorris Rodgers and other congressional legislators from Washington wrote a letter urging federal involvement in firefighting.
McMorris Rodgers said the U.S. Forest Service is honoring certifications from the Washington Department of Resources for civilians with equipment to join firefighting efforts.
“I feel like there’s better coordination than there’s been in the past,” she said.
More details on fatalities
Tom Zbyszewski, Richard Wheeler and Andrew Zajac, the firefighters who died this week in a fire near Twisp, belonged to specialized crews that immediately assess fire scenes and report back to commanders, said forest spokeswoman Carrie McCausland.
The crews were in the canyon in two vehicles and on foot when the flames raced toward them. One vehicle made it out safely, but the other carrying the three firefighters who were killed crashed. Four firefighters who were injured were among those who fled on foot, Rogers said.
The most badly hurt among the survivors Wednesday was Daniel Lyon, 25, a reserve police officer in Milton, who suffered burns over 60 percent of his body and remained in critical condition at a hospital in Seattle.
Lyon’s mother, Barbara Lyon, said her son loves the camaraderie of firefighters and police officers. It was his first summer on the fire lines.
“He would call me every day and always tell me not to worry, things are fine,” she said. “And I would say, ‘Daniel, I pray for you every night, for all your safety, for you and the others.’ ”
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