Living in the Pacific Northwest my whole life, you learn to get used to Fire Season. You have the 4 seasons: Fall, Winter, Spring & Construction/Fire Season. Fire season can start anywhere from Mid to Late July and into August and even September. I’m certain there were more than what I can remember, but it’s the ones I remember that I can write about.
The first I can remember occurred when I was about 7, we lived out in Merlin and the closest to us was the Galice Fire, which according to April 1995 Watershed Analysis for the Siskiyou National Forest burned about 21,000 acres and combined with 2 other fires and burned over 100,000 acres total. Being 7, all I remember is lots of smoke and looking out our 2nd story window and seeing more and more smoke.
The next major fires that I remember, was in 1993, I could not find any technical information but I remember that our valley was surrounded by fires and I was house sitting for my aunt & uncle in Gold Hill while they were visiting family back east. One of the fires was on the other side of the mountain from where my aunt & uncle lived so I remember being concerned about it coming over the mountain, but thankfully it did not.
As I said before, I’m sure there have been more than those two years I can remember specifically when I was growing up. However, over the last 4 years that I have lived in North East Washington, I have almost had to evacuate twice.
We moved here in 2014, but my first experience with a major fire was August of 2015. It was Stampede Weekend (If you are curious, look up the Omak Stampede Suicide Races, they are interesting). August 13th was the date and I was dispatching at the Stampede Grounds and could hear them talking about a fire over our regular channels.
This fire ended up combining 3 large fires into the Okanogan Complex Fire which became Washington’s biggest fire in history, at over 250,000 acres.
During this fire, there was also an earthquake and the epicenter was about 8 miles from where the initial North Star fire started. I was sitting in the dispatch center at the police department. When I heard a rumbling like someone was running across our metal roof. As it moved through, I my chair started rolling across the floor. My husband, who works inside the dam, approximately 5 floors under the water felt it. That was my first experience with an earthquake (while being awake that is).
The following year, there was a grass fire that started near Hwy 174 that ran up behind where we lived in Coulee Dam. It came very close to the switch yards, which would have just ruined everyone’s day because it would have cut power to millions of people. About 3-4 blocks up the street was the Coulee Dam Town Hall, we watched as the fire crept down the hill and got closer and closer. Thankfully, it didn’t come any further down the hill.
However the wind kicked up and blew it up and over another hill towards the highway, this was after I had driven up to go to the grocery store. Which then caused me to be separated from my family for a couple hours because they close the highway back down to my house… In the end, thankfully I was able to get back to my house and my family.
Last year, we had fires on the Colville Reservation once again, mostly they were a bit further away from work. One fire in particular, was in Keller and got a bit scary for a while because the wind became so wild. We had one call from some people afraid they were not going to be able to get out because they had come over on the ferry and thought they were on an island and the ferry had stopped running. Thankfully, I was able to reassure them there were other ways out.
This year we had another fire in Grand Coulee that started near Hwy 174 again and the wind caused the fire to spread rapidly. This time my daughter and I were at work, while the rest of our family was at home. As the fire spread, it came closer to town and the evacuation levels increased. At one point, we were in the area of a Level 2 evacuation, meaning we had to be on alert and ready to move.
Thankfully good friends that were clear of the fire offered their homes in case we needed to evacuate. Several of our old neighbors in Coulee Dam did have to evacuate as the fire crept down the hill behind the Coulee Dam Town Hall once again.
There are pros and cons of social media during times like these. The pros obviously are because you are able to get information out to a lot of people in a very short time and keep them updated. The biggest con of social media…MISINFORMATION & RUMORS… These were the biggest problems, people saying things they heard that weren’t correct.
It was a stressful night at work, being busy with the Stampede weekend once again, and having to worry about my family at home getting prepared to possibly evacuate. I was relieved when my daughter made it home.
In the morning when I got home, I found out that my husband had been called into work, they thought a transformer had blown and he was on call. Security had picked him up and took him to the switch yards. He was able to figure out that it was only a switch and not a transformer, and knew exactly where to find the spare part and get it changed out. Of course, the switch yards was dangerously close to where the fire…he admitted to me that there were a few times he was pretty scared, especially watching some of the livestock that were having to jump off a cliff to escape the fire or had already caught fire because they had become trapped.
Needless to say, I’ve had my fill of wildfires over the last 4 years.