Publisher does double duty during massive WA fire

Oct 17, 2014

Our goal was to be the first place people would visit for accurate,
up-to-date information

By Dee Camp
Reporter | Omak-Okanogan County (WA) Chronicle
OMAK, WA—The wildfire that ravaged our rural county in July made national headlines.
Our job at The Omak-Okanogan County Chronicle was to provide accurate, up-to-date information that was more complete than the sound bytes that appeared in the regional and national media.
The Carlton Complex—originally four lightning-caused blazes that merged into one huge conflagration—was more than just a big story for the evening news. The fire was a huge, ongoing story that impacted nearly everyone in our county of 40,000 people.
It is the largest wildfire in Washington state history.
At 5,315 square miles, Okanogan County is the largest, geographically, in the state of Washington. Despite its size, it is a relatively close-knit area. If you weren’t directly affected, then you’re likely to know someone who lost a home—280 were reduced to ash—or lost cattle or suffered damage to crops or had power off for days when transmission lines burned.
Along with direct losses, thousands of residents were affected when landline phones, cellphones and Internet service went down or experienced spotty service. The entire 911 system was down for a time.
So what does a twice-weekly paper with a news staff of five, including the publisher, do when the biggest story of the year ignites? We buckle down and report that story.
We also help out. After all, this is our community, too.
The fire started July 14. We knew it had potential to be destructive when volunteer fire departments 50 or 60 miles and a mountain range away were called to help protect structures. Our July 16 paper carried a front-page story about the fire, which was then relatively small.
The same issue carried an editorial warning from our state and federal officials. The editorial, “Manage forests before fire hits,” called on forest managers to increase logging, keep forest roads open and clean up slash piles left from previous thinning projects.
That editorial turned out to be an eerie forecast of the days to come.
As the week went on, temperatures soared well above 100 degrees—topping out at 105 in Omak—and the winds kicked up. Much of Okanogan County is high desert and heavily treed mountains, with fruit orchards in the two main river valleys and livestock grazing in the highlands and mountains.
The small blaze, high heat, windy conditions, poorly managed forests, dry grasses, sagebrush and steep terrain were a recipe for disaster when flames erupted across the already parched hills. By Thursday, July 17, the Okanogan County Sheriff’s Office was knocking on rural residents’ doors, telling them to get out, now.
Chronicle Publisher and Editor Roger Harnack, a member of Okanogan County Search and Rescue, was called to double duty—manage a newspaper and evacuate residents from the line of fire.
Harnack and Chronicle Sports Editor-Photographer Al Camp were in Indian Dan Canyon when the evacuation orders came. Wildfire raced through the canyon as residents feverishly gathered what they could and fled.
Harnack and Camp remained in the canyon, helping deputies and photographing the approaching flames as the fire consumed trees, sage and homes.
“I’m 63, so I used long lenses and stayed in front of the fire,” Camp said, noting the wildfires were moving too fast to get close.
With most residents out of the valley, Sheriff Frank Rogers directed his deputies out of harm’s way. Harnack and Camp left, too.
Departing the canyon, Harnack went south to the city of Pateros where a shelter was set up for evacuees at Pateros High School. At the time, nobody expected winds to shift and drive the fire to the edge of the school grounds by the end of the night.
Camp headed north to the city of Brewster—flames were advancing on the city known for its apple production. Brewster was thought to be the coming ground zero for the disaster.
Camp said he felt like he was competing with everyone in Brewster, as anybody with a mobile phone, tablet or camera stopped to take photographs.
The fast-moving, growing wildfire exhibited some unusual behavior. Wildfires normally “lay down” at night and tend to burn uphill. This one, fanned by winds that sent burning embers aloft, burned downhill on Thursday and the wind shifted that evening toward Pateros, population about 675. Those embers rained down on the city, which sits at the confluence of the Methow and Columbia rivers.
Its rapid advance overwhelmed law enforcement’s ability to warn everyone and firefighters’ ability to protect structures.
About 30 homes burned in the coming hour. Residents had mere minutes to flee the city.
“It really did feel like being in hell,” said former Chronicle reporter Jennifer Marshall, who lives in Pateros with her husband, Aaron Best.
“We lost our shed and took some heat damage to the back of the house, but overall we’re extremely lucky considering the flames were only about five feet from the house by the time Aaron was able to corral the cats, move his car out of the fire’s path and get out of there,” she said a few days after the fire.
Back at the office that Thursday and later from our respective homes, I wrote up information provided by the Sheriff’s Office and phoned in by Harnack and Camp, and e-mailed it to fellow reporter Brock Hires to post on our website. Those postings went late into the night.
Meanwhile in Pateros, Harnack tucked away his camera and put on his search and rescue hat and began evacuating the city, going door-to-door as the heat and firestorm bore down. The sky blackened with ash and smoke. And the heat rose to a level high enough to melt the light bars, bumper covers, headlamps and side view mirrors of fire trucks.
His camera still around his neck, Harnack snapped a quick photo here and there as the fire engulfed the city’s water tanks, destroyed homes and devoured the countryside.
With the city evacuated, Harnack eventually found himself on the far side of the fire and wasn’t able to get out until the wee hours of the next morning.
As he photographed the blaze from across a small bridge, the Washington State Patrol asked him to put his search and rescue hat back on and direct traffic. For the next hour or so, he turned northbound U.S. Highway 97 motorists around, advising them to go to Chelan or Wenatchee.
The fire continued to grow and advanced on a resort community near Harnack’s location. With traffic under control, the State Patrol directed him to assist with evacuating Alta Lake, a golf course community atop a sage-covered hillside.
Harnack left the fire area about 4 a.m. after being released from search and rescue. He was allowed to head north through the fire area and eventually back to the newspaper office about 40 miles away.
Overnight and into Friday, another branch of the fire, burning northeast of the blaze that attacked Pateros, moved along the edge of neighboring Brewster and across the mountains into the Chiliwist Valley. It then turned north along Old Highway 97, where it skirted the community of Malott.
Camp, a veteran photographer of numerous other wildfires, said he had never experienced anything like this year’s firestorm.
“I did Tripod, which was the last big one here. Barker Mountain (fire) threatened a lot of homes,” he said, noting the wind and dry heat this year fanned the flames.
During the first week of the wildfires, Camp shot close to 1,200 photos, wrote 10 fire stories and supplied information to me for our social media and websites. During the second week, he added another 800 images and several more stories.
That was in addition to his role as the newspaper’s sports editor.
More houses burned, including the Chiliwist home of Chronicle Production Manager Katie Montanez and her husband, Rick.
Although disabled, Rick is credited for saving the lives of many residents of Chiliwist. As the fire raced in, he dialed up the “phone tree,” calling the first of the residents on the list, who then called more residents, and so on.
Power, telephone and cellphone service was knocked out within minutes, literally leaving residents in the dark and without help.
But Rick’s efforts had afforded neighbors just enough time to get out of the valley before a majority of Chiliwist homes burned.
Rural Chiliwist residents had little time for gathering belongings, and no time to get livestock out. Hundreds of cattle worth millions of dollars would die, tangled in barbed wire along the few roads in and out of the valley.
“We were already getting ready to go,” Montanez said. “I had been outside a couple of times and could hear the roaring of the fire although I couldn’t see flames or even a glow.
Despite the emergency evacuation, Montanez reported to work Friday, not knowing whether her home had survived.
On Friday, we continued posting and reporting new developments—the fire’s advance, Red Cross shelter locations, donations that began pouring in from all over the country, power outages, emergency declarations and where to take displaced animals. We lost count of how many stories and photos we posted that day to our website, Facebook and Twitter.
Meanwhile, the paper called for donations of food and bottled water for fire victims. Our lobby began to fill up; Advertising Manager Teresa Myers and Circulation Manager Julie Bock headed the effort.
With the exception of sports, our entire Sunday paper—a four-page broadsheet wrapped around the Wenatchee World in a joint distribution agreement—was devoted to fire coverage.
Camp went out photographing again and Harnack, who hadn’t slept, was called into search and rescue duty again at the Okanogan Emergency Operations Center as an unofficial public information officer, posting updates to both the sheriff’s Facebook site and ours, and tweeting information online.
He and Camp continued to phone in or text information about the fire, allowing Hires and me to post constant updates. At one point, Harnack texted me information, in short snippets, from a meeting involving county officials dealing with the disaster. Our story was online before the meeting broke up.
Our volunteer efforts continued. With less than four hours sleep, Harnack started out at emergency operations. Hires took over for Harnack later that morning and the publisher went in search of more photos.
Camp, who also only had a few hours to sleep, went back to work with a camera, too.
Doug Camp, the Camp’s son, took a truckload of donated food to Pateros, where a relief station was set up at the high school, and also photographed the destruction along the route and in town.
Monday, July 21—a week after the fire started—was our marathon day. We continued to write, photograph and post updates all day and early into the next morning. Harnack made the decision to devote the entire 12-page front section of the Wednesday paper to fire coverage and squeeze the remaining stories into the second section.
In an unusual move, the paper quality was bumped up to 38-pound Hi-Brite. We knew people would want the issue as a keepsake and the “whiter” paper helped the photos stand out.
We also increased our press run.
A special Firestorm 2014 page was added to our website. Our goal was to be the first place people would visit for accurate, up-to-date information.
Harnack and Hires continued to handle the social media.
At the fire’s height, there were more than 3,100 firefighters and support personnel assigned to the fire from all over the nation. By July 30, the fire continued to burn, although it was largely away from populated areas. Damage will be in the tens of millions of dollars.