This article orginally appeared in the Columbia Basin Herald.
PATEROS- It’s mid-morning Wednesday when Tom Heath, Scott Rock and Mike Mullken hit the road, headed for Okanogan County.
They have with them a trailer full of bottled water, non-perishable food, paper goods, baby products and clothing–all items purchased with the close to $2,000 in donations from other Moses Lake community members for victims of the Carlton Complex fires.
Driving behind them, is Tom’s wife Jill, who has a trunk full of homemade snacks she intends to pass out to fire victims, firefighters and volunteers in Brewster and Pateros.
The group arrives in Brewster a couple of hours later, and is diverted to an unused bay at the end of an apple storage warehouse – which has been serving as the town’s donation drop-off site. As soon as the group’s trailer gets unloaded, volunteers at the warehouse shift their attention to another truck full of items that has pulled in to the lot.
The steady flow of vehicles in and out of the lot is nothing new, said volunteer Grace Cavazos. The Brewster resident, who has been helping collect and organize donations since last week, said she has stopped counting the number of loads coming into the donation center each day.
Cavazos, along with dozens of other volunteers, spend hours at the warehouse each day sorting through donations, boxing them up and taking them down to the distribution center at the town’s Rec Center.
The Rec Center serves as Brewster’s Fire Relief Center, offering showers, food and water for residents displaced by the fire. The Red Cross has also set up shop at Brewster High School.
“We’re here almost all day, every day, but it seems like there are never enough hands to keep up,” Cavazos said.
The drop-off site has only operated out of the apple storage facility since Tuesday. They were previously at the school district’s bus garage, but Cavazos said they soon ran out of room due to the amount of donations they were receiving on a daily basis.
And donations weren’t just coming from the immediate area, but from all over the state and the region, she said. But Cavazos said she was happy to hear that another Moses Lake group had shown up in Brewster.
“My daughter lives in Moses Lake and they brought up a trailer about two days ago,” she said. “They just got their friends together and they were able to collect a bunch of stuff.”
Other Grant County residents have also stepped in to help fire victims in Okanogan County over the past week, including the Brumet family of Moses Lake and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
The Brumets took up bottled water, baby supplies and food last Saturday. The church group delivered six trucks full of hygiene products, clothes, canned food and 25 generators Thursday morning.
“Everything brought here is needed,” said Cavazos. “We lost a few homes in Brewster but Pateros really took a beating.”
And the damage to Pateros quickly becomes evident while driving about six miles into Brewster’s neighboring town. Charred sections of land and trees spot the highway leading into Pateros, and soon piles of debris from burnt homes and other structures start to appear.
The fire, which blazed through the area Thursday night, did spare some of the town, including a few neighborhoods, Pateros School and businesses along the river.
Kathy Harding’s childhood home was in one of the neighborhoods the fire didn’t spare. Harding, who now lives in Omak, returned home to help her family deal with the fire’s aftermath.
“This was my grandparents’ home, then it was my mom’s home, and it would eventually have been my home,” she said.
Harding’s son and mother were at home when the fire broke out last Thursday. Everything happened so fast, she said, that they didn’t have much time to evacuate before the fire reached their neighborhood.
“They left when my uncle’s house started burning,” said Harding. Her uncle’s house was right behind her mother’s house, she said.
Her mom is staying in a hotel in Omak for the time being. Harding said they will eventually rebuild the home.
As Harding and her family spent the day sifting through the rubble of their home, other residents of Pateros and nearby Alta Lake gathered at Pateros school, which has become somewhat of a hub for disaster relief services in the area.
Heather Carrington has volunteered at the school since it opened as a relief center last Saturday. Hundreds of people visit the school each day to eat hot meals, get clothes and other supplies and visit with other community members in addition to the people who come to drop off donations, she said.
“This place is always, always busy,” she said.
Carrington grew up in Bridgeport, lived in Pateros for a while and now lives in Brewster. She said she volunteered because she knew people who had lost their homes in the fire.
“This is my community, I needed to be here helping and I can’t leave,” said Carrington. “I’m just lucky I’m a stay at home mom and can be here all the time.”
She said thousands of people have volunteered, and continue to volunteer, at the school. Some unload the trucks and trailers that come in with donations, some sort and organize them inside the school and some help fire victims get to the resources they need.
Others help make sure the community members that visit the school are fed, said Carrington. Washington Trust Bank for example, has been on site providing hot meals for fire victims and volunteers.
Jim Branson, director of retail banking for Washington Trust, said a group of bank employees drove from Spokane to Pateros Tuesday night. They brought their mobile bank so residents could have access to an ATM (the bank isn’t charging a service fee to use the machine).
They are also cooking three square meals a day for residents through Friday.
Washington Trust doesn’t have a branch near Pateros or Brewster, but Branson said some of the bank’s employees are from the area, have customers in the area and brought the crisis to their attention.
“We’re glad to be here, it’s amazing to be able to help these people,” he said. “This just seemed like the right thing to do and we wanted to do it.”
Pateros is located in what authorities are referring to as the Carlton Complex South Zone. As of Thursday, the entire fire was 52 percent contained.
The fire has burned 250,489 acres so far, making it the largest wildfire in state history. A 1902 fire burned 238,920 acres in Clark, Cowlitz and Skamania counties.
The South Zone had minimal fire activity Wednesday night as a result of rain over the past few days. Wind did blow ash and dust in the area, despite the moisture.
At this time, there is no threat from fire activity to Pateros, Brewster, Manson or Chelan.
Carrington said while the fire has moved on, the rebuilding process is just beginning for area residents.
“It’s a long road ahead for us,” she said.
Carrington said its estimated that 170 or so homes have been lost in the fire’s South Zone. The city of Pateros has also been without power, and utility officials think it could be at least a week before it’s restored, she said.
“We can’t just look at short term needs, we have to think about the long term,” said Carrington.
She said luckily, help is coming in from all parts of the region.
“We have people who just show up and say I want to help, what can I do,” she said. “There was a gentleman the other day who came from Seattle. He was literally on his couch one day and said what am I doing, I need to be helping down there.”
Help, in the form of donations and volunteers, has also come from as nearby as neighboring counties and as far as Utah and Montana.
“This started with our community but has grown – we have all really come together as a community,” said Carrington. “This is very much a community providing for the community.”
written by: Tiffany Sukola
Washington Trust Bank