OMAK, Wash. — The fire crested the hills above Luke McKee’s home with little warning.
Driven by high winds and fed by drought-baked shrubs, flames ripped down the hillside and cut an unpredictable, horseshoe-shaped path that overwhelmed his attempts, aided by a local fire truck, to save the ranch house where he and his wife and two sons had lived for 11 years.
On Thursday afternoon, McKee stood by the ashes of his property south of Okanogan, just off State Route 97. The house, designed by his late grandfather, had burned to the foundation.
“It looked like, for a while, with a little bit of grace we would avoid it,” said McKee, whose family was unharmed and who was able to save belongings including photographs as well as several horses before the fire.
The Cold Springs and Pearl Hill fires have burned more than 346,000 acres in Okanogan and Douglas counties — the largest blazes of the state’s suddenly devastating 2020 fire season.
A 1-year-old boy was killed as his family tried to flee the Cold Springs fire, and the death is being investigated as a homicide after reports the fire may have been set, according to Okanogan County Sheriff Tony Hawley.
On Thursday, smoke hung in the air, with tendrils rising from charred trees and bushes south of Omak, even as families, friends and fire crews were cleaning up, taking stock and planning relief efforts.
Ed Townsend, fire chief of Okanogan County Fire District 8, unfolded a paper map retrieved from his pickup and pointed to a swath of nearby acreage.
“Everybody inside here lost 100%,” he said. “It’s catastrophic enough where we have got to start from the ground up.” Immediate needs include water and generators for areas that may not get power back for a month.
Speaking at his own Omak ranch property near the county fairgrounds, Townsend said, “we are out assessing animal losses and putting animals down. That’s today’s project — shooting cows — and injured animals, wildlife, bears.”
About 30 miles to the south, in Bridgeport, Douglas County, Maria Carranza Perez stood by the torched remains of her family’s mobile home. The family had evacuated Monday to camp in the neighboring town of Brewster until it was safe to come back.
When they returned, they found their home had burned down along with two others in the Orchard View mobile home park.
Now, Carranza Perez and her nephew, Javier Pascacio Pacheco, said they have only the clothes on their backs and the few possessions they carried with them.
“We all had the freezers full of food and water, which is gone,” said Pascacio Pacheco. “For now we are OK — (but also) we aren’t OK because we lost everything.”
The family is staying at a friend’s home and an empty mobile home one of the neighbors let them borrow so they could have shelter.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Loren Culp, the police chief in Republic, in nearby Ferry County, toured some of the fire damage along with several campaign volunteers, driving a 30-foot RV that has served as his mobile campaign headquarters.
His tour included the McKee ranch, where he listened with sympathy, recalling when his house burned down when he was about 11 years old and living near Chimacum in Jefferson County.
“It’s just etched in my memory. I’ll never forget it,” Culp said.
In campaign appearances, and again in an online video Wednesday, Culp criticized Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee over the state’s management of public lands, and downplayed the role of climate change in wildfires.
“The climate does change, I am not denying that,” Culp said in the Facebook video. But, he said, “why don’t we work on what’s in our backyard first,” citing trash and dirty needles piling up in Washington cities.
Inslee has repeatedly linked global warming to the rise in catastrophic wildfires and other extreme weather events, and has called for aggressive limits on greenhouse gas emissions.
Touring the fire-devastated town of Malden, Whitman County, on Thursday, Inslee criticized Culp’s climate views.
“Open your eyes. Follow the science,” Inslee said, according to The (Spokane) Spokesman-Review. “Because the wages of not following the science are loss – people losing their lives and their homes. And we’re better than this.”
While visiting with Townsend on Thursday, Culp also emphasized that some of the fires had been set by people. He said he hoped federal law enforcement would investigate and aggressively prosecute wrongdoers.
Townsend appeared wary of being fodder for a political campaign, and said everyone should concentrate now on solutions and coming together to speed a recovery.
“This is a bipartisan fire,” he said.
(Seattle Times Staff photographer Amanda Snyder contributed to this report.)
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