CNW Fire Dispatch #9 – Rain comes to the Kettle Fires

CNW Fire Dispatch #9 – Rain comes to the Kettle Fires

Conservation Northwest / Sep 01, 2015 / Columbia Highlands, Wildfire

The Stickpin Fire burns in thick timber west of the town of Orient, Washington. Photo: Rough Country Photography

Editor’s Note: This is the ninth of our fire dispatches from staff and colleagues that live or work in the areas impacted by this year’s fires. 

Conservation Associate David Heflick lives in a log cabin outside the town of Orient near the Kettle River Mountain Range in the Columbia Highlands. As part of our Forest Field Program team, he works on forest policy and restoration on the Colville National Forest and in surrounding areas.

Photos of the Stickpin Fire near Orient graciously provided by Rough Country Photography.

By David Heflick, Conservation Associate and Colville Forest field staff

Driving north on Highway 395 this past weekend, the signs—both figurative and literal—were ominous: many of the yellow tags on street sign posts indicating the current evacuation level had numbers crossed out and replaced with higher numbers. The smoke was so thick it hurt to breathe. Most of the traffic on the highway was fire-related. But nothing got my attention more than the eight fire engines parked at the junction of Highway 395 and the turnoff for the town of Orient. In addition, the evacuation level for Orient had been raised to Level 2 because of growth from the nearby Stickpin and Renner Fires, part of the Kettle Complex.

I had driven to Kettle Falls that morning to take a carload of high-priority belongings to a safe location after reading a warning from the Pacific Northwest Fire Coordinating Group that stated, “An exceptionally strong frontal system will move across the region Saturday bringing strong gusty winds with low relative humidity for five to six hours during the burn period. This could be the biggest wind event in the Pacific Northwest of the 2015 fire season.”

The potential consequences the public was alerted to included extremely rapid fire spread, significant long range spotting, loss of existing contained fire line, extreme potential for falling trees, and high potential for blown down powerlines that can start new fires and limit mobility of firefighting resources. One did not need to be a fire-behavior expert to grasp the notion that under these conditions the four miles between the edge of the closest fire and my log cabin could rapidly shrink to zero.

Stickpin fire Rough Country Photography

Upon arriving home, I immediately loaded up the stacks of second-string belongings that I had set aside in the event of evacuation and headed back south, planning to take refuge at my brother’s house until the storm had passed. About five miles into the drive, I noticed that the direction of the wind had shifted from southwest—which was blowing the fire toward my property and the town of Orient—and was now coming from the east. I watched and waited as this change in direction held steady for another two hours, and then the wind speed decreased markedly. “Well,” I thought, “maybe I can go back home.”

Lo and behold, on the way back up the highway it started raining lightly. The fire trucks were no longer waiting at the turnoff to Orient. And when I got home, everything was exactly as I had left it. Exhausted from the stress, I crawled into bed. In the middle of the night I was awakened by a sound I’d not heard for a long time: the pitter patter of a steady rain on the roof of my cabin. I made my way to the computer and sent out an email to friends and family that read: “RAIN!!! Everything is going to be okay.”

Editor’s Note: The rain over the past few days is a big help for fire response efforts. However, many areas are not in the clear yet. Portions of the Wolverine, Okanogan, North Star, Kettle and Carpenter Road fires will likely burn until we get weeks of drenching fall rains.

For the latest official fire updates, we recommend Inciwebthis GIS map, and the Okanogan County Emergency ManagementChelan County Emergency ManagementColville Tribes Emergency ServicesStevens County Fire District #1 and Ferry County Sheriff’s Office / 911 Facebook pages.

We also want to express deep gratitude to all the firefighters, first responders, National Guard, U.S. Army servicemen and women, and all the other heroes working to keep our communities safe during this demanding fire season. Our thoughts and prayers are with all those impacted.

Stickpin fire 3 Rough Country Photography