OMAK & INCHELIUM — As of this print, the five fires that started during a wind event over the long Labor Day Weekend have destroyed over 80 homes and burned over 200,000 acres on the Colville Indian Reservation.

This story was originally published by Tribal Tribune. It is used with permission. 

“A lot of people have stepped up in a lot of ways to help with this fire.” said Colville Business Council Chair Rodney Cawston, speaking at a press event in Omak. “It does take everyone to work together.  I have had calls from federal and state congressman and their agencies that want to help, tribes and groups wanting to make donations but not wanting to interfere with those doing the work.  I can’t believe the fire and the damage that has occurred.  The descriptions of what people went through was just unbelievable.  One family had 10 to 15 minutes.  If you can imagine that, you’ve got 10 to 15 minutes to think, ‘What are you going to do,’  or ‘what are you going to take,’ or ‘What’s important to you.’ Then to see that fire roll over the hillside toward your home.  The roar was so loud, coming at you like a creature, and when it hit them and their home it just turned completely black.  When they came back to their home to find nothing, everything disintegrated. This smoke filled air is becoming all too common. There are things we need to deal with managing these fires, managing our natural resources.  I’m very overwhelmed by all the good that has taken place.” 

Each of the fires started on Sunday, Sept. 6, along with a number of other fires around the state. 

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee published a tweet noting on Sept. 7 “330,000 acres burned in WA. That’s more than 12 of the last 18 entire fire seasons. In a single day.”

“The devastation wrought here and elsewhere around the state by wildfire is unimaginable,” said Hilary Franz, Washington Commissioner of Public Lands, speaking alongside Cawston. “What I saw on the ground and in the eyes of residents and tribal leaders was both heartbreak at the devastation and resolve to rebuild and respond to the needs of their neighbors during this crisis.”

As of Sept. 17, the Cold Springs Fire, burning on the western part of the Colville Reservation stretching from Omak to Bridgeport, is reported to be 188,852 acres with 134 miles of perimeter. The fire is listed at 70 percent containment.

As of Sept. 17, the Inchelium Complex of fires is reported 18,975 acres and 60 percent contained. The Inchelium Complex includes the Inchelium Highway Fire, the Fry Fire and the Kewa Fields Fire.

The fires have a combined total of 766 firefighters working to stop the blazes.

“We knew our turn was coming,” said Fire District 8 Chief Ed Townsend, a Colville Reservation resident. “We were the last major block in Okanogan County that hadn’t burned in the last 10 years. Like most people within this fire perimeter, it’s a 100 percent loss of everything.”

The cause of all the fires remain under investigation.

“I don’t think we’ve ever seen anything like this happen before, where power has been out almost all across the reservation as well as internet and cell service,” Cawston is quoted in a Spokesman-Review article.“And then with the fire crews in the state and federal government already stretched so thin, and also here on our reservation, I think that perfect storm has hit us.”

In a broadcast email to tribal employees announcing a gubernatorial declaration of a state of emergency in Washington state, Cawston commended the community and tribal employees for their response.

“I know we have many problems in our tribal government, but we cannot always focus on the wrong without also recognizing all of the good,” wrote Cawston. “There are members of our staff who have been up working all night long, and others going out of their way to be of assistance.  Just when I learn of one more thing that needs to be done, someone stands up, and volunteers to help out!  We also have many friends out there, Congressman, federal and state employees, other tribes who have contacted us to offer donations because they want to help us during our time of need.  Also, our Governor who has declared a ‘State of Emergency.’  OUTSTANDING!

“Further, we also need to thank all of our Wild Land Fire Management Teams who risk their lives.  Our own Fire Management Team from Mount Tolman, Okanogan Co. Fire Districts 3, 6, 8 and 15.  Also, Washington State DNR and other Federal, State and local agencies.  The Commissioner of Public Lands, Hillary Franz who has personally reached out and deployed fire fighting resources including aerial resources.  We are also receiving assistance from the Red Cross and the National Guard.”

Gov. Inslee issued a declaration of a state of emergency for statewide wildfires to remain in effect until Sept. 30.

The governor traveled to Bridgeport, meeting with Cawston and other local leaders and fire victims, to visit the Cold Springs Fire and the Pearl Ridge Fire, burning in Douglas County, Sept. 13. 

firefighterJustus Caudell/Tribal Tribune

The Cold Springs Fire burns through CIHA housing development in Malott

The fire had been burning all around Malott, when Mandy McDonald and her family received an evacuation notice. 

“We were concerned, but we didn’t know that surrounding areas such as Monse, which is only minutes away, was on fire, as well as Okanogan. We felt there was no immediate concern for our home until we were given notice for evacuation and told that it would be our only notice.”

Many families had only minutes to escape the fire that Mount Tolman Fire Center Fire Management Officer Ike Cawston estimated to have burned more than 30 miles in 4 hours.

In contrast to many, McDonald’s family had about 10 hours to back.

“We packed for hours and ran out of room in vehicles,” said McDonald. “We really thought we would be coming home and our house would be spared. We had time to pack important items: family pictures that we could find, our Pendleton blankets, family kept items passed down. But in the end, you can’t pack up your whole house.”

When they returned after the fire came through, they discovered the evidence of the chaos in the Malott Colville Indian Housing Authority housing development they called home.

“We drove back hours later only to see our house engulfed in flames along with two neighboring houses . Our neighborhood has 3 families that lost their home that night.  There was no going back to our place, it was gone.”

The response from CIHA was immediate, she said.

“Our housing authority worked extremely hard to get my family in a home in Omak housing one week after losing our home,” said McDonald. “I cannot express how grateful I am for being able to get in a home so quickly… I just want to thank everybody for all the kindness in donations we received.  Thank everybody all family and extended relatives, programs and all the donors.  I know my family wouldn’t have been able to pull it together as fast as we did without all the love and support of a great community.  My neighbors, Angie Redhorse and Edna Sellars, are still awaiting to get a home in Omak with our housing and we all received help and can’t thank everybody enough for all the continuing support.”

In Inchelium, residents rushed to help their neighbors.

“I work on the ferry, so we got to watch the fire start,” said Inchelium resident Vernon Lawrence, speaking from his home in Seyler Valley after being able to return when evacuation orders were lifted. “We knew it was coming this way but there wasn’t anything I could do. I finished my shift and came up here. The smoke was coming over the hill pretty hard. One of my partners downtown has a grader and he said I could borrow it. I went downtown, drove up here, put a wireline around the whole place. There wasn’t a fire yet, but the smoke was over the hill at Holford’s and you could see it coming. On the way out, I put a wireline around my sister’s house and that was about all we could do. We came back up at 7 o’clock to see if we had a house yet, and the fire was coming up over the top of the hill. It was pretty much topping trees as it came across the hill. We couldn’t do anything. We just took our motor home downtown and spent the night.”

The Lawrence family lost a few cars and a horse trailer.

“Very luckily, nobody got hurt,” said Lawrence.

When he came back, he said he didn’t know what he was going to find.

“I came up at 5 o’clock before work. I seen a dozer and a lowboy parked down there, so I figured I still had a house because the dozer was on the trailer. There was a pumper sitting outside my shop, and I was thankful for that. They said if I hadn’t of put a line in, I probably wouldn’t have a house. I was pretty relieved to still have a shelter to live in.”

firefightersJustus Caudell/Tribal Tribune

Okanogan County announces investigation into the death of child in Cold Springs Fire

On Sept. 9, Okanogan County Sheriff Tony Hawley issued a statement stating Okanogan County Sheriff Office Detectives and Colville Tribal Police Detectives are investigating the death of a child within the fire perimeter.

The release reads, “On Tuesday, September 8, 2020 at about 3:30 p.m. Okanogan County Sheriff’s Office received a call to attempt to locate a family in last known to be in the area of Cameron Lake Road and Paxton Canyon Road. The deputy was advised the vehicle had been located wrecked and had been burnt but was not occupied. The family was attempting to leave their property to get away from the Cold Springs Fire.

“Okanogan County Search and Rescue was called upon to search the area to locate the missing family. On Wednesday, September 9, 2020 at 9:56 a.m., I was advised the three had been located along the river bank of the Columbia River. I was advised all three were burn victims and were being transported by boat by the Colville Tribal Department of Natural Resources to the Bridgeport State Park. Brewster Ambulance responded to transport the victims to Three Rivers Hospital.

“Jacob Hyland, 31 (Renton, WA), and Jamie Hyland, 26 (Renton, WA) were later flown to Harborview Medical Center due to the third degree burns they suffered. Their 1 year old son was deceased when the family was located by the search crews.

“Okanogan County Sheriff Office Detectives and Colville Tribal Police Detectives are investigating his death. Investigators are still working to determine the cause of the fire. We are asking anyone with information on the cause of the fire to contact Tony Hawley (509) 422-7183 or (509) 846-6001 or by email [email protected].”

Donations

Donations have poured in to the Colville Tribes with major donations coming from the Kalispel Tribes, the Spokane Tribes, the Suquamish, the Nisqually, the Jameston-Skallam and others.

Donation centers were established at tribal community centers in Inchelium and at the LIHEAP building in Nespelem, and all donations are sanitized when brought in, said LIHEAP staff.

Manned mostly with volunteers working 10 to 16 hours per day, the Inchelium Community Center continued to provide meals to families in need in the area - particularly those without electricity and water due to power lines downed by the fires.

The group served 80 to 150 meals daily, said cook Jeanette Simpson, who noted the crew has also cooked baked goods for firefighters and others and organized food pantry items that have been donated.

“This is all donation,” said Simpson, pointing out toward the folding tables in the dining room of the community center. Those tables were filled with items ranging from socks to camping supplies, bottled water, canned goods and other groceries . “We have a chest freezer full  of meats for people. We have tribes, we’ve had local people donate, we’ve had non-local people donate. People bring random stuff in. It’s really cool. We have had a lot of stuff donated.”

On Sunday, Living Stone Church gave volunteer cooks a rest to provide dinner for the Inchelium community.

“We came out Tuesday (Sept. 7) to barbecue for the community, and instead of doing church today, we’re serving the community in this way,” said Pastor Van Bradeen, who graduated from Inchelium High School in 1985. “We love the community. We cancelled church this morning in Spokane because the smoke was so bad, and we came out here.”

“It’s close to home,” said Dena Schmidt, who traveled to Inchelium from Spokane with a carload of donations. “I have family up here. Both of my brothers are volunteer firefighters, so they’re out. My sister is an artist and she raffled off a piece online to contribute. We’re all doing what we can to contribute. I have a huge upright freezer at home, and I knew people would be needing meat, so I brought it down.”

Amongst many other donations, the Kalispel Tribes donated several loads of hay for ranchers and others who lost their hay supplies and four pallets of water to Inchelium residents. Colville tribal member Gene Nicholson also donated a truckload of 30 tons hay to residents affected by the Cold Springs Fire.

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