OMAK - The wildfire that ravaged our Okanogan County in July 2014 made national headlines.
Our job at The Omak-Okanogan County Chronicle was to provide accurate, up-to-date information that was more complete than the sound bytes that appeared in the regional and national media.
The Carlton Complex - originally four lightning-caused blazes that merged into one huge conflagration - was more than just a big story for the evening news. The fire was - and is, five years later - a huge, ongoing story that impacts nearly everyone in our county of 40,000 people.
It was, at the time, the largest wildfire in Washington state history. The following year, the merged Okanogan Complex, Tunk Block and North Star fires surpassed it.
At 5,315 square miles, Okanogan County is the largest, geographically, in the State of Washington. Despite its size, it is a relatively close-knit area. If you weren’t directly affected, then you’re likely to know someone who lost a home - 253 homes and 53 cabins were reduced to ash - or lost cattle or suffered damage to crops or had power off for days when transmission lines burned.
Along with direct losses, thousands of residents were affected when land line telephones, cellphones and Internet service went down or experienced spotty service. The entire 911 system was down for a time.
So what did a twice-weekly paper with a news staff of five, including the publisher, do when the biggest story of the year ignites? We buckled down and report that story.
We also helped out. After all, this is our community, too.
The fire started July 14, 2014. We knew it had potential to be destructive when volunteer fire departments 50 or 60 miles and a mountain range away were called to help protect structures that first day. Our July 16 paper carried a front page story about the fire, which was then relatively small.
The same issue carried an editorial warning our state and federal officials. The editorial, titled “Manage forests before fire hits,” called on forest managers to increase logging, keep forest roads open and clean up slash piles left from previous thinning projects.
That editorial turned out to be an eerie forecast of the days to come.
As the week went on, temperatures soared well above 100 degrees – topping out at 105 in Omak -- and the winds kicked up. Much of Okanogan County is high desert and heavily treed mountains, with fruit orchards in the two main river valleys and livestock grazing in the highlands and mountains.
The small blazes, high heat, windy conditions, poorly managed forests, dry grasses, sagebrush and steep terrain were a recipe for disaster and flames erupted across the already-parched hills. By Thursday, July 17, the Okanogan County Sheriff’s Office was knocking on rural residents’ doors, telling them to get out - now.
Then-Chronicle Publisher and Editor Roger Harnack, a member of Okanogan County Search and Rescue, was called to double duty – manage a newspaper and evacuate residents from the line of fire.
Harnack and Chronicle Sports Editor/Photographer Al Camp were in Indian Dan Canyon near Brewster when the evacuation orders came. Wildfire raced through the canyon as residents feverishly gathered what they could and fled.
Harnack and Camp remained in the canyon, helping deputies and photographing the approaching flames as they consumed trees, sage and homes.
“I’m 63, use long lenses and stay in front of the fire,” Camp said at the time, noting the wildfires were moving too fast to get close.
With most residents out of the valley, then-Sheriff Frank Rogers directed his deputies out of harm’s way. Harnack and Camp left, too.
Departing the canyon, Harnack went south to Pateros, where a shelter was set up for evacuees at Pateros High School. At the time, nobody expected winds to shift and drive the fire to the edge of the school grounds by the end of the night.
Camp headed north to Brewster – flames were advancing on the city known for its apple production. Brewster was thought to be the coming ground zero for the disaster.
Camp said he felt like he was competing with everyone in Brewster, as anybody with a mobile phone, tablet or camera stopped to take photographs.
The fast-moving, growing wildfire exhibited some unusual behavior. Wildfires normally “lay down” at night and tend to burn uphill. This one, fanned by winds that sent burning embers aloft, burned downhill on Thursday and the wind shifted that evening toward Pateros, population about 675. Those embers rained down on the city, which sits at the confluence of the Methow and Columbia rivers.
Its rapid advance overwhelmed law enforcement’s ability to warn everyone and firefighters’ ability to protect structures.
About 30 homes burned in the coming hour. Residents had mere minutes to flee the city.
“It really did feel like being in hell,” said former Chronicle reporter Jennifer Marshall Best, who lives in Pateros with her husband, Aaron Best.
“We lost our shed and took some heat damage to the back of the house, but overall we’re extremely lucky considering the flames were only about five feet from the house by the time Aaron was able to corral the cats, move his car out of the fire’s path and get out of there,” she said a few days after the fire.
Volunteer firefighters and a retaining wall helped save their home.
Back at the office that Thursday and later from our respective homes, I wrote up information provided by the sheriff’s office and phoned in by Harnack and Al Camp, and emailed it to fellow reporter Brock Hires to post on our website. Those postings went late into the night.
Meanwhile in Pateros, Harnack tucked away his camera and put on his search and rescue hat, and began evacuating the city, going door-to-door as the heat and firestorm bore down. The sky blackened with ash and smoke. And the heat rose to a level high enough to melt the light bars, bumper covers, headlamps and side view mirrors of fire trucks.
His camera still around his neck, Harnack snapped a quick photo here and there as the fire engulfed the city’s water tanks, destroyed homes and devoured the countryside.
With the city evacuated, Harnack eventually found himself on the far side of the fire and wasn’t able to get out until the wee hours of the next morning.
As he photographed the blaze from across a small bridge, the Washington State Patrol asked him to put his search and rescue hat back on and direct traffic. For the next hour or so, he turned northbound U.S. Highway 97 motorists around, advising them to go to Chelan or Wenatchee.
The fire continued to grow and advanced toward Alta Lake. With traffic under control, the state patrol directed him to assist with evacuating people living at the lake, a golf course community atop a sage-covered hillside.
He and a deputy evacuated the last of the residents as the fire ripped into the community. Eventually, 41 homes in the Alta Lake area burned, including the home of a state trooper helping others as the fire began growing north. Golf carts burned, but the green course survived.
By the end of the last evacuation, Harnack looked like a coal miner, his face and clothing blackened from the soot and ash.
Harnack left the fire area about 4 a.m. after being released from search and rescue. He was allowed to head north through the fire area and eventually back to the newspaper office about 40 miles away.
Overnight and into Friday, another branch of the fire, burning northeast of the blaze that attacked Pateros, moved along the edge of neighboring Brewster and across the mountains into the Chiliwist Valley. It then turned north along Old Highway 97, where it skirted Malott.
Camp was there to photograph the advance of the fire near Malott. He continued to supply me with information to be posted immediately to the Web.
“I thought that was an extremely good job of firefighting,” Camp said of the effort in Malott. “It was pretty amazing.”
Camp, a veteran photographer of numerous other wildfires over the past 40 years, said he had never experienced anything like the 2014 firestorm.
“I did Tripod (in 2006), which was the last big one here. Barker Mountain (fire, in 1985) threatened a lot of homes,” he said, noting the wind and dry heat this year fanned the flames.
Over the course of the first week of the wildfires, Camp shot close to 1,200 photos, wrote 10 fire stories and supplied information to me for our social media and websites. Over the second week, he added another 800 images and several more stories.
That was in addition to his role as the newspaper’s sports editor.
More houses burned, including the Chiliwist home of Chronicle Production Manager Katie Montanez and her husband, Rick.
Although disabled, Rick is credited for saving the lives of many residents of the Chiliwist. As the fire raced in, he dialed up the valley’s “phone tree,” calling the first of the residents on the list, who then called more residents, and so on.
Power, telephone and cell phone service was knocked out within minutes, literally leaving residents in the dark without help.
But Rick’s efforts had afforded neighbors just enough time to get out of the valley before many Chiliwist homes burned.
“We got two phone calls from neighbors warning us of the fire,” Katie Montanez said, noting that was the impetus for her husband to dial up the phone tree. “One of them said, ‘You and Rick need to get out now.’”
Rural Chiliwist residents had little time for gathering belongings, and no time to get livestock out. Hundreds of cattle worth millions of dollars died, tangled in barbed wire along the few roads in and out of the valley.
“We were already getting ready to go,” Montanez said. “I had been outside a couple of times and could hear the roaring of the fire although I couldn’t see flames or even a glow.
“By the time we were loading up in the van, the roar was much, much louder. We heard later that the fire trucks couldn’t get into our driveway, so we feel very fortunate we had time to leave. There would have come a point at which we wouldn’t have been able to leave and would have been trapped.”
Despite the emergency evacuation, Montanez reported to work Friday, not knowing whether her home had survived. She set to work dummying the weekend and Wednesday editions, building ads and securing press times and runs.
On Friday, we continued posting and reporting new developments - the fire’s advance, Red Cross shelter locations, donations that began pouring in from all over the country, power outages, emergency declarations and where to take displaced animals. We lost count of how many stories and photos we posted that day to our website, Facebook and Twitter.
I would hit the save button on a completed story, then immediately dive into another. That went on for hours and hours. I don’t think any of us remembered to grab a bite to eat that day as one horrible scenario after another unfolded.
Assisting us was intern Chelsee Johnson, a recent Omak High School graduate.
Meanwhile, the paper called for donations of food and bottled water for fire victims. Our lobby began to fill up; then-Advertising Manager and now Publisher Teresa Myers and Circulation Manager Julie Bock headed the effort. Julie’s teenage son, Kash Heath, helped carry donations into the lobby.
With the exception of sports, our entire Sunday paper - a four-page broadsheet wrapped around the Wenatchee World in a joint distribution agreement - was devoted to fire coverage.
By that time, Internet and phone services were intermittent countywide. We made plans to put the Sunday paper on a flash drive and drive it to the press in Wenatchee, 90 miles to the south. Since roads were closed much of the time, we plotted alternate routes. In the end, the Internet came back and we were able to transmit pages electronically, as usual.
Al Camp went out photographing again and Harnack, who hadn’t slept, was called into search and rescue duty again at the Okanogan Emergency Operations Center as an unofficial public information officer, posting updates to both the sheriff’s Facebook site and ours, and tweeting information online through Twitter.
He and Al Camp continued to phone in or text information about the fire, allowing Hires and me to post constant updates. At one point, Harnack texted me information, in short snippets, from a meeting involving county officials dealing with the disaster. Our story was online before the meeting broke up.
Shortly thereafter, Harnack “volunteered” rookie reporter Hires (now The Chronicle’s managing editor) to take over the social media and public information campaign.
Hires relocated to the Emergency Operations Center, where he continued to write stories for the newspaper as well as manage the social media for us and the sheriff’s office.
Hires, who had been a reporter for less than two months, called the fire “truly devastating.”
He said it was a real honor to have been tasked not only to report the news, but to also keep up social media for emergency officials.
“Being able to get the information out just … it’s an honor to have that kind of responsibility. It’s amazing how the whole thing came to be,” he said at the time.
At 8 p.m. Friday, the center closed its phones and social media operations for the night, but our newsroom continued to operate.
Helping with news coverage Saturday - production day for the Sunday paper - were a couple freelancers - former reporter Sheila Corson and the Camps’ son, Doug (a music teacher home for the summer) - and advertising representative Kate MacKenzie, a former Canadian Broadcasting Corp. reporter.
MacKenzie also took turns volunteering on the hotlines at the sheriff’s office, answering questions for fire victims and those still in harm’s way.
Our volunteer efforts continued. With less than four hours sleep, Harnack started out at emergency operations. Hires took over for Harnack later that morning and Harnack went in search of more photos.
Al Camp, who also only had a few hours to sleep, went back to work with a camera, too.
Doug Camp took a truckload of donated food to Pateros, where a relief station was set up at the high school, and also photographed the destruction along the route and in town. He phoned in information, allowing us to alert residents, who had started to come back, about the relief effort and also of an impromptu community barbecue to use up perishable foods and dozens of pies made for the community’s Apple Pie Jamboree, which was to have been that day.
During those hectic few days, Doug also posted information on his personal Facebook page to keep his acquaintances – many of whom moved away for college or jobs – up to date with accurate reports. He also consoled a close friend whose family lost their home in the Chiliwist area.
On Sunday, Gov. Jay Inslee and several other state officials came to town to view some of the damage and meet with local officials. Harnack spent much of the day in the emergency center; he and I covered a meeting involving local officials and the governor’s entourage.
By that time, TV crews had arrived from larger cities elsewhere in the state. While they chatted in the parking lot, waiting for a sound byte from the governor, we were in the meeting listening to local officials assail Inslee with questions about state response to the fire. Also on hand for the meeting were a couple state legislators, then-Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark and Washington State Patrol Chief John Batiste.
Monday, July 21 – a week after the fire started - was our marathon day. We continued to write, photograph and post updates all day and early into the next morning. Harnack made the decision to devote the entire 12-page front section of the Wednesday paper to fire coverage and squeeze the remaining stories into the second section.
In an unusual move, the paper quality was bumped up to 38-pound Hi-Brite. We knew people would want the issue as a keepsake and the “whiter” paper helped the photos stand out.
We also increased our press run.
We continued posting to our Web page, Facebook and Twitter during the second week of the fire, bringing much-needed information to our readers. A special Firestorm 2014 page was added to our website. Our goal was to be the first place people would visit for accurate, up-to-date information.
Harnack and Hires continued to handle the social media.
At one point, Hires posted key information that contradicted incorrect information posted by a Spokane TV station. The station later corrected its story. Throughout the coming week, our staff ended up correcting multiple television stories and social media posts dealing with fire evacuation levels, where to make donations, road closures and fire status.
Throughout that time, we dealt with intermittent Internet service, non-functioning phones, a brief power outage and wonky computers that chose to act up on deadline.
A special section for the Omak Stampede fell in the middle of it all. We got the section out, but with the Internet down that day, we ended up sending Mailroom Supervisor Howard Thompson to the press with the pages on a flash drive.
Harnack, in the meantime, found an Internet signal at the county operations center and tried to send the pages electronically. The connection was so slow that pages were still arriving at the press the next day, after the section had been printed.
It was an ultra-high-stress time that could have resulted in personal meltdowns and professional blow-ups, but staff members kept their cool.
The July 27 (Sunday) and July 30 (Wednesday) newspapers also were full of fire information, including the beginnings of recovery mode as the fire slowed its rapid advance.
At the fire’s height, there were more than 3,100 firefighters and support personnel assigned to the fire from all over the nation. Three fire camps served as temporary home for those crews, around 7,000 electrical customers were without power (and were for more than a week), three shelters were in operation and the only railroad line into the area was damaged when two trestles burned. Tons of clothing, food and water were donated, along with hay and other supplies for displaced animals.
As the fire wound down, more than two weeks after it started, Harnack was named as the Emergency Operations Center’s official public information officer for a time. Hires continued to be on call for the center’s social media needs.
“That whole two-week span is just a blur,” he said.
While most of the TV crews packed up and gone home, The Chronicle will continued to cover the stories of our county’s residents and their struggle to recover from Firestorm 2014. At the time, I commented that Carlton Complex would be the story that kept on giving. It still is.
Editor’s note: This report is updated from one that was written July 30, 2014, and printed in Publisher’s Auxiliary and The Washington Newspaper, national and state trade papers, respectively. At that time, the fire continued to burn, but was largely away from populated areas. Damage was estimated in the tens of millions of dollars. No one had yet estimated how long it would take to assess and tally the damage. Now, five years later, the damage is still being tallied, both monetarily and in human terms.