By Cary Rosenbaum
OMAK – Fanned by 40 mph winds, a fire near the intersection of state Highway 155 and North End Omak Lake Road – about six miles outside the city on reservation land –grew to more than 5,000 acres overnight, fire officials said.
“We’ve hoped that we got through fire season without any bad things happening,” Colville Business Council Chairman John Sirois said Wednesday, “But, unfortunately, we’re going through it.”
The fire has already destroyed two homes and eight outbuildings, fire command spokeswoman Kathy Moses said Wednesday.
The fire is advancing around both sides of Omak Lake, which has been tough to get a fire line around, she said.
“It’s currently heading southwest towards Timentwa Flats,” Moses said. “The problem with trying to get fire lines dug is because of the steep and rocky terrain.
“We’re relying on old fire lines to assist us in making a line of containment.”
Crews are making use of previous fire areas to develop firelines.
Those fire lines include multiple fires in the Haley Creek area, The French Valley Fire in 2008 and other fires on the mission road, she said.
They planned to use the Columbia River Road as a fire line Tuesday, Moses said, until the fire jumped the road, and now threatens residents at Timentwa Flats, she said.
When the fire that started Tuesday, Oct. 1, approached the tribe’s Paschal Sherman Indian School around 4:40 p.m., the threat became real.
Superintendent Debbie Simpson was talking to a second-grade teacher in a classroom when a tribal Fish and Wildlife employee ran in to warn faculty members.
“He said, ‘There’s a fire coming!’” Simpson said.
Most students – about 75 percent of the 190 who attend – were already home.
Only 51 live-in students had to be evacuated, immediately.
They were sent to the Omak Community Center, where they received dinner from Hometown Pizza of Omak and public donations of water and snacks, before they were booked into rooms in the Okanogan Inn and Suites.
The 26 long-distance students – those from outside Indian reservations in the Northwest – were sent home Wednesday morning around 11:30 a.m.
Simpson returned Wednesday and said she “won’t leave the school ‘til it’s done.”
An employee since 1979, Simpson said the current fire has been by far the most threatening in her tenure.
“I’m just thankful that the school wasn’t burned down and the kids were out of here in time,” Simpson said. “I was driving by the school today and it looked devastating and sad. It’s not the same.”
An unoccupied building at the old campus was lost in the fire, which scorched the hill past two water towers and smoldered around the old campus, where historic St. Mary’s Mission is located.
The blaze isn’t the first disaster to hit the reservation this summer.
A windstorm turned Keller into a disaster zone in July.
Hundreds of homes lost electricity and the area suffered damage from fallen trees as far as Rainbow Beach Resort in Inchelium.
Damage to tribal land was more than $2 million, Sirois said. The tribe received $2 million to $3 million in federal relief.
"Unfortunately, we're getting better and better at handling these natural disasters,” Sirois said. “It’s not something you want to be good at.
“We’re just hoping this isn’t one of those fires that leads to more damage than has already happened.”
Paschal Sherman Indian School and residents near St. Mary’s Mission are still on a Level 3 evacuation notice.
Because of poor air quality, school has been canceled for the remainder of the week, Simpson said.
Level 2 evacuation notices have been issued to residents near Haley Creek, Kartar Valley and Timentwa Flats, officials said.
Road closures include St. Mary’s Mission Road and Columbia River Road. State Highway 155 from Omak to Nespelem remains open.
The cause of the fire remains under investigation, officials said, noting between 80 and 100 firefighters and other personnel are on scene.
Containment lines and structure protection will continue Wednesday, officials said.
Winds were listed at 25-30 mph at 11 a.m.