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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Ray Kresek: 64 years of northeast Washington wildfires

By Ray Kresek

By Ray Kresek

These past weeks we’ve been hearing about Washington’s first big wildfire of the year, the 1,200-acre Stayman fire, on the back side of Chelan Butte. I’m told a DC-10 airtanker with its 9,500-gallon payload of retardant helped kill that one.

Go back 64 years to 1958, of the same week, to the biggest fire in Washington that year. A house burned 4 miles west of the current Stayman fire in Navarre Coulee. The Department of Natural Resources was but 1-year-old; a new super agency grown out of the state Division of Forestry.

I arrived alone, as a state DNR fire warden; the only firefighter on the payroll in the only fire truck to protect 450 square miles of wildland both directions from the town of Chelan. The mid-afternoon fire was already climbing the mountain beyond the reach of the hose on my fire truck.

When a half-dozen Seattle tourists headed home from Lake Chelan stopped to watch, I handed them shovels and told them to start up the hill tossing dirt, hopped back in my truck and drove away, to the top of Davis Canyon where its only resident and I met 20 local co-op firefighters who chased the fire up the hill.

We corralled it at 600 acres near the edge of the National Forest. No city or county fire trucks, no aircraft, not even the U.S. Forest Service. Just a bunch of co-ops who grabbed tools from a fire cache and came when called. We worked all night, alongside Griff Williams, the Eastern Washington supervisor, who had seen the smoke on his way to Omak and Colville on other DNR business. At dawn, Griff sent me to town to buy lunches for the crew, while he continued to supervise mop-up operations. That’s how we did it back in the 1950s.

Fast forward to the same week 36 years later to 1994. Another lightning strike set a small fire in the early evening up Tyee Canyon, 12 miles farther west. Upon arrival, the U.S. Forest Service’s initial attack crew was told to standby at the highway, because it was getting dark and it meant a 1-mile hike up a steep hillside. By dawn, they still awaited orders to hike up to the now 35-acre fire. Three hours later, the Tyee fire blew up, burning 140,300 acres and destroying 94 homes and cabins between the Entiat River and Chelan. A 376 engines, 18 water tenders, 28 bulldozers, nine helicopters, four heavy airtankers and 2,776 people, including those on city fire trucks from Spokane, Seattle and a half-dozen other cities, camped together at the Chelan city park to protect the town and bring the Tyee fire under control a month later. It was the first statewide disaster mobilization. It cost $50 million to fight and rehab. Today, that cost would be triple or more.

2000: Four firefighters died after an elite Forest Service hotshot crew opted to sleep instead of mopping up the Thirtymile fire north of Winthrop the night before.

2014: This state’s biggest fire in its history, the 256,108-acre Carlton Complex in the Methow Valley, blew up near Twisp after its crews’ allowable fire time expired while it was being mopped up at only an acre.

2015: Five times as many, 1,232,400 acres burned in northeast Washington. The monthlong noxious smoke killed asthma and heart patients hundreds of miles away.

2020: The Cold Spring-Pearl fire burned 413,653 acres; all the way from Omak 60 miles to Waterville in one day, jumping the Columbia River at least three times.

No trees burned in this year’s Stayman fire. They had already burned, along with all those on both sides of Lake Chelan and half of the Okanogan and Methow country in the past few years of big fires nearly every summer.

A landscape changed for a lifetime.

Global warming? Smokey Bear did too good a job preventing wildfires? U.S. Forest Service Let Burn policy of 1987? What do you think?

Retired Spokane Fire Lt. Ray Kresek spent 35 years as a professional firefighter, including as Chelan fire warden with the Washington state Department of Natural Resources. Kresek is the author of “Fire Lookouts of the Northwest” and the recipient of the Silver Smokey Bear, the nation’s most prestigious wildfire prevention award.