Chelan potentially faced complete devastationAs families and vacationers from all walks of life enjoyed warm summer temperatures and the inviting waters of a perennial summer beach resort, a menace was lurking nearby that would change many lives forever and drive tourists to scurry for protection.
No, this wasn’t Amity Island, the fictional small town made famous in the movie Jaws, and the menace was not a shark. But the overall impact was pretty much the same: people were frightened, and the local tourism industry – for two weeks in August, anyway – came to a standstill.
Early morning lightning strikes on August 14, 2015 were about to lay siege to Lake Chelan, Washington, arguably the most popular vacation lake in the state. Flames that might otherwise have been managed and even contained were quickly fanned out of control by unusually strong winds. Mid-morning, as vendors set up their tents in a downtown park for the Lake Chelan Fine Arts Festival, flames began racing across the Chelan Butte, a high ridge just on the edge of town. Thick, dark smoke billowed into the air. Tents flapped in the winds as the strong gusts made it apparent that Friday’s art show was not going to proceed as usual.
Soon, the sky was alive with airborne firefighters – tankers full of retardant, scoopers with water, spotters, helicopters – each joining in a carefully choreographed effort to lay retardant or water as quickly as possible on fire that was threatening dozens of homes and potentially the very heart of downtown.
“If that fire would have gotten into South Chelan, it would have been horrible,” said Richard Uhlhorn, a reporter and photographer for GoLakeChelan.com. It was obvious to anyone with eyes that the flames were much too close to town and the winds way too strong. Chelan residents were torn between feelings of awe as they watched the spectacular air show, and a nagging sense that maybe it would be wise to leave town now before the narrow two-lane roads into and out of Chelan were clogged with residents literally fleeing for their lives.
While 40 structures did in fact burn to the ground – including homes and businesses that sustained major losses – residents credit the authorities for bringing in a big DC-10 tanker aircraft that was so accurate in its “bombing” runs that in many places it just stopped the fire in its tracks. Russ Jones, the local manager of Cashmere Valley Bank, reportedly had his house drenched in retardant in one run that felt like the DC-10 was trying to land on his house. The red retardant made a mess of several homes and neighborhoods, but locals were only too happy to clean it up. As Chelan Valley Mirror Editor Sebastian Moraga remembered, “I’ve never seen people so happy to do another chore.”
Uplake a few miles on the South Shore, Watkins Harverene Resort owner Robert “Bub” Watkins was not able to rely on air drops when flames from the First Creek Fire burst onto his property adjacent to Lake Chelan State Park. At first sight of the fire, Watkins and his oldest son fought back the flames entirely on their own. Later another son, neighbors and good Samaritans joined in to help Bub save all of the resort lodgings.
Further north, the Wolverine fire was threatening Stehekin, Lucerne, Holden Village and one of the most pristine getaways in the entire Northwest: Domke Lake Resort. With its two simple cabins and boat rentals, it has been a favorite fly-in fishing getaway for Seattle moguls and generations of families from North Central Washington but on this weekend it would cease to exist. The fire roared into the lake area so quickly that owner Sid Burns was forced to ride it out in the middle of the lake on a boat.
It wasn’t quite that bad for Chelan High School’s Class of 1965 50th Reunion that was scheduled for that weekend at the Chelan Senior Center. They were already in town and decided, to heck with it, the event was going on as scheduled – even if they did have to settle for finger-food instead of a big dinner Saturday night after their caterer was less willing to fight on through impending doom.
Huge losses were sustained by some Chelan businesses, with the biggest losses reported by Chelan Fruit. There were 450,000 packed boxes of apples ready to ship that all went up in smoke, along with buildings, sorting lines and bins. Power outages forced restaurants to throw out thousands of dollars in frozen food. Bear Foods gave food away to anyone who wanted to take it home.
Businesses all over Chelan suffered a severe drop in revenue as lingered over the lake for the entire last two weeks of August. Chelan City Parks reported $200,000 in losses because of RV space reservations being cancelled, while business at local hotels also suffered. Chelan area hotels generally are 95 percent full in August – during those two weeks it was 25 percent. Passenger traffic on the Lady of the Lake and Lady Express excursion boats was just 15 percent of normal.
But with all of the negative impacts from the fires, the overwhelming sense in Chelan now seems to be one of gratitude for the help the city has received from firefighters, and for the help local residents have received from each other. Even the businesses that lost considerable money were simply thankful to still have their businesses.
That’s now translated into a movement in the local community to make things right again for the fire’s victims. Benefit concerts and events are springing up and crowd sourcing pages on the internet are generating relief funds. Local residents are being urged to buy from local businesses. The Lake Chelan Chamber of Commerce is reaching out to the Seattle metro area to help. A Fall Revitalization Campaign has begun with major market radio and digital ads emphasizing that “Lake Chelan is here for you” and that fall would be an especially good time to come back for great weather and fun events like the Lake Chelan Crush Festival put on by local wineries. Lots of good deals are being offered.
The rejuvenated spirit is fairly obvious in Chelan these days, as many local residents and business people breathe a collective sigh of relief that they still have their homes and livelihoods. But there is an underlying tension about why the fires are wreaking so much havoc these days and some locals say that Forest Service and other agencies’ policies may be flawed.
“Right now they just want to forget it and get back to their lives,” said Richard Uhlhorn. “Later on they’re going to want to sit down and hear from the agencies. There’s a lot of anger out there.”
Among the agencies coordinating help for fire victims are Chelan Valley Hope (509-888-2114, www.chelanvalleyhope.com) and the Chelan Valley Fire Relief Fund (509-663-7716, www.chncw.org).
PHOTOS: Several cabins were destroyed along Lake Chelan, fire and smoke nearly reached downtown area
PHOTO CREDITS: Photos by Cary Ordway
RECOMMENDED LODGING: Lake Chelan lodging
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