Scenes from the largest wildfire in Washington State history
On the evening of July 18, 2014, at around 8:30 p.m., I had just poured myself a drink in my one-bedroom apartment here in Spokane Valley, a quiet neighborhood in the incorporated sprawl of Eastern Washington State. It was not unlike any other Thursday night during my 12-week summer internship at the Spokesman-Review, Spokane's daily newspaper.
Then my editor John calls. There's a raging wildfire out of control in the central part of the state, unlike anything the state's seasoned firefighting authorities have ever seen. The paper is sending a photographer, who not only is well-versed in carefully treading around wildfire with a camera but also whose girlfriend lives directly in the fire's path. In other words, the photographer, Tyler, was jetting out there, for multiple reasons, within the hour.
Why don't I go along and see what's going on?
We got close to the fire around 1 a.m., and we knew because the air was choked with smoke, as from a miles-long campfire. We filled up at a gas station and bought some energy drinks before driving right into the heart of the beast. That first night, there was no "front line" of the fire, no great team of firefighters battling the blaze. At least at the section of fire that was whipping toward Brewster and Pateros, it was truly wild, untamed. You could hear it sucking the oxygen as it gained speed over the hillsides and jumped across roads.
What became known as the Carlton Complex fire scorched 250,000 acres, at least, at final count. Miraculously, a relatively minimal number of structures were affected. One death was recorded — a firefighter who had a heart attack battling the blaze.
The biggest losses were experienced in Pateros and the rural Methow Valley, a scenic stretch of apple and fruit orchards among jagged, brush-filled hills.
We stayed for three full days, leaving late Sunday night after a community meeting at Brewster's high school. Here's some of what I saw.
The untamed leading edge of fire near Brewster, Wash., early morning July 19, 2014.
Rubble in Pateros, Wash., on the morning of July 19.
Spokesman for fire crews showing a map of the unprecedented blaze near Pateros, on July 19.
Assessing a contained area with fire crews on July 20, the third day of the fire.
Fire racing toward homes near Mallott, Wash., on July 20.
The fires became a spectacle near Mallott, Wash. on July 21, 2014.
One of the only — if not the only — gas stations open in the Methow Valley. Near Twisp, Wash.
A patch of smoking forest off Route 20, near Twisp, Wash.
"It's amazing what fire does, isn't it?" said David Brownlee, Pateros homeowner who lost everything, in Pateros, Wash.
A home in the line of fire. It would burn in a matter of minutes. Near Mallott, Wash.
Full air assault on fires consuming the rugged terrain south of Twisp, Wash., on July 19.
As haze hangs still over Brewster, Wash., focus here shifts to what will be a massive relief effort on July 20.