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“Cauldron of hell”: Residents reeling from Washington wildfire damage

By CBS/AP 9:15 AM July 19, 2014
PATEROS, Wash. –

Residents strolled through the smoldering rubble of their neighborhoods, some wearing surgical masks to protect their lungs from the smoke and ash lingering in the air of the riverside community they call “Paterodise.”

“Paterodise is hurting right now,” said one, Stephanie Brown, as she surveyed what was left of a friend’s home.

A wind-driven, lightning-caused wildfire racing through rural north-central Washington destroyed about 100 homes Thursday and Friday, leaving behind solitary brick chimneys and burned-out automobiles as it blackened hundreds of square miles in the scenic Methow Valley northeast of Seattle.

Two Air National Guard C-130 tankers will start fighting the wildfires raging throughout the West this weekend, the U.S. Forest Service announced.

The fire near Pateros charred more than 168,000 acres, CBS News correspondent Carter Evans reports. Resident Josh Allen was turned away at a roadblock.

“Probably the hardest thing I ever had to do,” he said, “knowing that your house is burning up.”

The Okanogan County town of Pateros, home to 650 people, was hit especially hard. Most residents evacuated in advance of the flames, and some returned Friday to see what, if anything, was left of their houses.

Residents of the small town of Malott, north of Pateros, were told to leave their homes Friday as the fire advanced, as were some living in outlying areas of nearby Brewster.

“We basically evacuated the whole town” of Malott, Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers said Friday night. Several hours later, he said one home had burned in Malott but the fire threat in Brewster had eased.

Malott is home to about 500 people, while the population of Brewster is about 2,400.

There were no reports of injuries, the sheriff said, adding he knew the overall damage toll has grown but he didn’t have an updated number.

In Pateros, a wall of fire wiped out a block of homes on Dawson Street. David Brownlee, 75, said he drove away Thursday evening just as the fire reached the front of his home, which erupted like a box of matches.

“It was just a funnel of fire,” Brownlee said. “All you could do was watch her go.”

Next door, the Pateros Community Church appeared largely undamaged.

Carol Hamshaw said her home, her daughter’s home and her brother’s home were all destroyed Thursday.

“It’s hard to believe until you stand here and see it,” she said.

The pavement of U.S. Highway 97 stopped the advance of some of the flames, protecting parts of the town. The mayor, Libby Harrison, lost her own home of the past five years, and said she expected most people to rebuild.

“As a community you come together and make a big thing better,” she said.

Firefighters poured water over the remnants of homes Friday morning, raising clouds of smoke, steam and dust. Two big water towers perched just above the town were singed black. Ash fell like snowflakes.

The fire consumed utility poles from two major power lines, knocking out power to Pateros as well as the towns of Winthrop and Twisp to the north.

Gov. Jay Inslee said about 50 fires were burning in Washington, which has been wracked by hot, dry weather, gusting winds and lightning. Some 2,000 firefighters were working in the eastern part of the state, with about a dozen helicopters from the Department of Natural Resources and the National Guard, along with a Washington State Patrol spotter plane.

Karina Shagren, spokeswoman for the state’s Military Department, said 100 National Guard troops were on standby, and up to 1,000 more in Yakima could receive additional fire training. Active duty military could be called in as well, Inslee said.

“This, unfortunately, is not going to be a one-day or one-week event,” he said.

Sections of several highways were closed in the Methow Valley, a popular area for hiking and fishing about 180 miles northeast of Seattle.

“There’s a lot of misplaced people, living in parking lots and stuff right now,” said Rod Griffin, a fly-fishing guide who lives near Twisp. “The whole valley’s in disarray.”

He described long lines for gasoline, with at least one gas station out of fuel, and said cellphone towers must have been damaged as well because there was very little service.

In Brewster, a hospital was evacuated as a precaution. The smoke was so thick there Friday it nearly obscured the Columbia River from adjacent highways. The smoke extended all the way to Spokane, 150 miles to the east.

Officials said the fire, known as the Carlton Complex, had blackened more than 260 square miles by Friday, up dramatically from the prior estimate of 28 square miles.

“Mother Nature is winning here,” Don Waller, chief of Okanogan County Fire District 6, told The Wenatchee World newspaper.

The county sheriff said his team counted 30 houses and trailers destroyed in Pateros, another 40 in a community just outside the town at Alta Lake, and about 25 homes destroyed elsewhere in the county of about 40,000 people.

About 100 miles to the south, the Mills Canyon-Chiwaukum Creek complex of fires earlier chased people from nearly 900 homes as it sent a dusting of ash over the Bavarian-themed village of Leavenworth. Most of those evacuation orders were rolled back by Friday, with residents of only about 300 homes affected, said fire spokesman Bob MacGregor.

“It really looked like the cauldron of hell,” Leavenworth resident Tim Germaine told CBS News’ Carter Evans. “You can see flames everywhere you looked. With this kind of heat and wind, it looks like eastern Washington is going to burn to the ground.”

In southwest Grant County, three small communities were told to be prepared to evacuate if necessary due to a wildfire burning in neighboring Kittitas County, the Grant County Sheriff’s office said. And a portion of State Route 243 near Interstate 90 was temporarily closed because of smoke.

Worsening wildfire activity has prompted the governor’s offices in both Washington and Oregon to declare states of emergency, a move that allows state officials to call up the National Guard.

Fifteen large fires were reported throughout Oregon on Friday, burning across more than 565 square miles of timber, rangeland and grass. Dozens of homes were evacuated as incident management teams and hotshot crews were brought in from at least nine states to supplement Oregon’s strained resources.

© 2014 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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