The flames raged directly across from Keith Stennes's house; the green branches in the foreground are his deck. Photo by Lifesong Photography.
He wakes on a midsummer morning to an orange sky. Not the flush of dawn but the angry pulse of fire to the north, upriver. Below that sky lies everything he has loved—his family, their homes, the orchards he inherited from his grandfather—all of it cradled in a narrow, tinder-dry canyon. The conflagration has crept toward Keith Stennes for days—starting three days earlier, when four separate lightning strikes ignited the Methow Valley—and this morning, July 17, 2014, it has almost arrived.
He tastes the air. The flavor of burnt forest. The fire, less than 10 miles away, will be at his farm by late afternoon.
Lanky, 69, silver haired, Stennes is the patriarch of a family whose business dates back to the 1890s, when his grandfather Britanus Stennes laid claim to the land and pushed an apple sapling into the fertile soil. Together with his 33-year-old twin sons, Keith helms Stennes Orchards, 550 acres from which they coax 20 kinds of apples, pears, pluots, and cherries.
Over the course of nine days, the blaze, christened the Carlton Complex fire—the largest fire in Washington state history—will devour a quarter million acres and some 300 homes in the town of Pateros and surrounding communities. But for now, as the inferno approaches, one thought burns through Keith Stennes’s mind.
If you leave, you’re giving up.
“We saw the strike,” cattle rancher Vic Stokes says, sitting with his school-teacher wife, Carrie, on the porch of their wood-sided ranch house outside of Twisp, about 20 miles upriver from the Stennes place. “It was Monday, July 14, and a storm came through—a lightning storm with very little rain.”
Stokes is a thoughtful, deliberate man, 60 years old, slow talking but keen witted, with the unruffled manner of someone who spends a lot of time working alone outdoors. Like Keith Stennes, he has deep roots in the valley and a fierce attachment to the land that has been in his family off and on for generations. And, like Stennes, he had a lot to lose from the wildfire. “After the strike, we saw smoke rising on a hilltop toward Carlton,” says Stokes. He knew how parched the range was, how hot and dry the air; he knew how little it would take to turn that spiral of smoke into serious trouble.
There was no careless camper or heedless teen flicking a cigarette into the brush. It was, in the argot of so many locals, “an act of God” that started the Carlton Complex fire. Or rather multiple acts of God.
The first act: Less than half the normal precipitation had fallen on north central Washington between April and June. Then in July it got hot and stayed hot. The North Cascades Smokejumper Base outside Winthrop, where the valley’s official weather data are recorded, measured 10 days in a row of temperatures above 93. The day before the dry lightning storm, relative humidity topped out at 9 percent.
The blaze that Vic Stokes watched flicker to life at the tip of a lightning bolt was one of four fires that the dry storm lit in Okanogan County—four small, seemingly insignificant acts of God occurring on remote stretches of land. “We live in a fire-prone area,” says Stokes. “This one didn’t seem like it would be a problem.”
And maybe it didn’t have to be. That same day, a team of smoke jumpers was called up from the Winthrop base to jump a fire near Hells Canyon in Idaho. Vic’s oldest son, Blake, flew out on that plane. As they headed east, the crew saw the smoke rising from French Creek, one of the four fires ignited by the storm. The jumpers requested permission to reroute so they could put it out. Permission denied. The team flew on to Idaho.
At first no one else paid much attention to these new tongues of flame licking at the grass and sagebrush. Weather and topography aligned perfectly to make the Carlton Complex fires merge and explode. The canyon of the Methow River is oriented more or less on a northwest-southeast axis, and on the morning of Thursday, July 17, the wind started blowing hard from the northwest. Relative humidity was once again in the single digits, and by 10am the temperature was pushing 90. Thirty-two-mile-an-hour gusts funneled oxygen into the fires.
Around three o’clock in the afternoon the blaze made its spectacular run. William Vallance, fire chief for District 15, which covers the communities of Brewster, Pateros, Methow, and Bridgeport Bar, says he had “never, ever seen fire this intense, this large, or fast moving.”
“When it jumped Highway 20 that afternoon, we knew we had lost,” says Michael Liu, Forest Service district ranger for the Methow Valley. “The cards had been dealt and now it was a matter of watching it unfold. It was going to do what it would do. Even with all the resources in the world we could not have caught it.”
Somewhere in Keith Stennes’s spacious riverside house there is a family atlas. When guests are over and the conversation turns, as it often does, to genealogy, out comes the book, and there it is: Stennes, a tiny finger of land jutting into the Norangs fjord on the crumpled west coast of Norway near the resort town of Alesund—“the most beautiful place in the world,” claims Keith, who has seen it.
In 1892, his grandfather Britanus K. Stennes left Norway behind to seek his fortune in America. Broad shouldered, square jawed, restless, Britanus had known little aside from hardship and calamity in his first two decades. The village where his family had resided since the 1300s was too pinched and northerly to feed its large families.
According to family lore, the young immigrant made his way to Minnesota, got a job in a mine, and—though the annals of the Land of 10,000 Lakes are silent on the subject—reportedly walked away as the sole survivor of a major mining accident. What is certain is that Britanus, like many another Norwegian at the turn of the last century, pushed west toward the coast.
He kept moving until, in 1894, he arrived in the port town of Ives Landing (as Pateros was then called) on a Columbia River steamer.
From town he made his way up the Methow Valley. About 12 miles upriver, the rock walls parted to reveal a vista that likely stopped the young man in his tracks. On one side the canyon rose sheer out of the river. The opposing wall was gentler and set far enough back to allow for a good stretch of arable land. A bend in the river had smoothed and flattened the valley floor.
Britanus felt that here at last was a place he could breathe free—and own free, thanks to the Homestead Act. He filed his claim, built a sturdy farmhouse, married a Norwegian girl named Bertha, and settled down to start a family and run a farm.
The land was covered in rocks and sagebrush. Winters were cold and summers torrid and droughty. But Britanus and Bertha surrounded their homestead with gardens of vegetables and berries. They raised chickens and cows. They had a root cellar and a smoker and an ice house stacked with blocks of frozen Methow water. And eventually they started planting fruit trees.
Ten acres of orchards grew to 25, on which Britanus raised Newtown Pippin, Winesap, and Red Delicious apples. In time he took his place at the head of a small community of Methow Valley pioneers doing the same thing. In the old family photos that Keith and his wife Deb have hung at the head of their staircase, Britanus looks serious, benevolent, stubborn—the very model of the hardy homesteader.
When he died in 1941 at the age of 69, his oldest son Kermit inherited the farm and ran it for two and a half decades until he suffered a massive heart attack in 1966. Keith, then 21, rushed home from Washington State University to take over.
The orchard froze to the ground two years later, the year Keith and Deb were married, and he had to start over again from scratch. There were years when the entire crop got hailed out. During the 1970s and ’80s the Stenneses watched grower after grower in the valley go under until only three families remained of the 50 or so that had once produced fruit here commercially. But the Stenneses not only hung on, they flourished, diversifying into new varieties, tapping the overseas market (which accounts for as much as 40 percent of cherry sales), experimenting with organically grown fruit (which they market under a company called Cascade Crest Organics), and above all expanding the amount of land they farm.
Keith and Deb’s twin sons, Kevin and Mark, have been the driving force behind the exponential growth. (The Stennes also have a daughter, Kristin.) Good-looking, well-educated guys, a shade darker and stockier than their dad, the twins have spearheaded a plan that has nearly tripled the family’s farmland (a lot of it leased) in the past 11 years, from 200 acres in 2003 to 550 today. Their dream is to reach 1,000 acres in five years.
If you saw the Stennes boys in T-shirts and jeans horsing around with their blond brood—both are married, with seven children between them, both live (in separate houses) on the original family homestead a few hundred yards from their parents—you’d never guess they export cherries to Japan, sign payroll checks for 140 workers, or fly off to conferences in Nova Scotia.
You’d never guess that on the night of July 17, Kevin and Mark were standing in a circle, hand in hand with their wives and children and parents, beseeching God to spare them from the flames that were roaring down the valley.
No one expected it to spread so quickly. Ranger Michael Liu was stunned that evening when he heard that the blaze had reached Pateros, some 40 miles from his office in Winthrop. “At first I thought they had mixed up the names,” Liu recalls. “How could it have spread that distance in that short a time?”
Okanogan County sheriff Frank Rogers was just as surprised. A big, bald guy with a bristly mustache, squinty eyes, a resonant baritone, and an office full of Batman paraphernalia (long story), Rogers is the quintessence of cool under pressure. But when fire crested the ridgetops and bore down on the town, all he could think of was the 1999 Brendan Fraser movie, The Mummy. “It sounds weird,” he says, “but when the wind picked up on the evening of the 17th, the fire tornado that came rolling down the hill toward Pateros looked like the mummy in that film.”
From then on, Pateros, a town of 660, was engulfed in fire and the controlled chaos of fighting it. Rogers and his deputies went house to house. They knocked on doors. They shouted at people: “You need to get out now.” The air was so thick with smoke at 8pm, you couldn’t see your hand right in front of your face.
“The fire guys were coming and going in all directions,” recalls Rogers, “and we were funneling people outside of town, pushing them to Chelan. It was so dark and so crazy in Pateros that I kept thinking, Please, God, please don’t let me run over a fireman.”
Land charred at the rate of an acre every four seconds. Aluminum ladders melted. Houses didn’t catch fire, they went up in blasts of wind-borne flame. Pine trees didn’t burn, they baked to death with their needles twisted sideways by the wind and petrified by the heat. “We lost 30 houses in town and another 54 out at Alta Lake [a development around a golf course a couple miles out of town],” says fire chief Vallance.
As the sun sank toward the Cascades that evening, smoke turned the twilight of midsummer into a choking infernal midnight.
It’s the sound of the fire that finally kills any notion Keith Stennes has of staying put. At around 6pm that orange sky begins to roar. The fire’s updraft sounds to Stennes like two 747s taking off. He stands outside his house and watches the fireballs flare out of the soot gray sky and roll down the hill.
“The earth was almost shaking with the roar of the fire’s updraft,” he will later explain.
Stennes and his sons make the call: The women and children should evacuate first. They pile into three cars—Deb in one, Kevin’s wife, Jen, with their three kids in a second, and Mark’s wife, Robin, with their four kids in the third—and point the caravan toward the home of the Stenneses’ 42-year-old daughter, Kristin, who lives with her husband and kids 10 miles south of the rest of the family in a house at the edge of one of the orchards.
Around 8pm, Keith and the twins round up the family dogs and follow. They roll past mile after mile of fruit trees and fence posts in flames: their livelihood up in smoke. Once the whole Stennes clan is assembled at Kristin’s place, they all gather outside. Four generations stand in a circle in the driveway, join hands, and pray.
Afterward the decision just falls into place: Kristin and John will head south to Chelan; the rest of the family (Keith and Deb, their sons and daughters-in-law and seven grandchildren) will go north, back home—or to what they hope will be a home. “It was one of life’s defining moments,” Keith will recall. “Left or right.”
The drive back upriver is surreal. Every human-made light has been extinguished by the power outage; the road is empty—not a single headlight pierces the dark; but everywhere the Stenneses look, the skyline is ringed with fire. About a mile from the homestead, Route 153 slices through a rock cut; when the road emerges on the far side, the first glimpse of the original orchards opens up. Britanus Stennes walked through this gap for the first time in 1894 and saw heaven on earth before him. His great-grandson has a vision of hell. “My heart sank when we passed that rock cut and I saw the posts of our deer fence glowing in the dark,” says Kevin. “I thought we had escaped until I saw those posts burning.”
When the Stenneses finally pull up at the homestead after 9pm, their houses, miraculously, are intact. But fire is everywhere.
A man they don’t know, possibly a firefighter, materializes and shouts, “What the hell are you guys doing here?” The adults rush into their houses to gather clothes, supplies, and family photos. It’s so hot they have to keep their backs to the blaze. Robin, Mark’s wife, sits in the car with her four kids and watches the hills burn. Her kids are crying. “Let’s go, Mom. Let’s go.” For at least the second time in one night, Robin bows her head and prays.
Rancher Vic Stokes stayed up all night fighting the 20-foot flames that kept shooting at his house. With no power, the water pumps were useless, but his gravity-pressurized irrigation system still worked. Vic, his son Kent, and daughter-in-law Abby stood in a line, knocking the fire down with hoses.
“There were times I could hardly breathe,” says Stokes. “We were at it for what seemed like forever.”
It wasn’t until Saturday, July 19, that the fire was tamped down enough for Stokes to head into a section of the 18,000 acres that he grazes. “When we drove in, we started to find the first dead cattle on ranch permit land. My son Blake found 50 to 60 dead ones in the back of one canyon—they had gotten trapped in a narrow place with mountains rising on either side. We know all of our animals by sight, but most of them had been burned beyond recognition. Even their ear tags had burned off.”
For days after the fire, Stokes rounded up survivors, cows with their feet and udders and bellies singed by heat and flame, half-dead calves with their hooves cracked and septic from postburn infections. He treated them with topical liquids, pain medication, and antibiotics. A few had to be put out of their misery. When a count was taken, Stokes estimated that 50 to 60 percent of his herd of 400 cows and calves were gone.
Stokes and his son Kent nursed along one badly burnt calf. It seemed like it would recover. But a month to the day after the fire, a stalled thunderstorm dumped upwards of an inch of rain on the valley and the injured calf was swept away in the flooded creek.
“We are waiting for locusts,” Vic’s wife Carrie jokes.
Vic tries to put the losses in perspective: “My great-grandfather homesteaded this land at the turn of the last century, but my grandparents lost the ranch during the Great Depression. In 1945, the land came up for sale and my parents bought it back. You have it—you lose it.”
The fire ultimately consumed some 340 structures throughout Okanogan County, most of them homes, and 256,108 acres, surpassing the Yacolt Fire of 1902 to become the largest wildfire in Washington state history. It claimed one life—67-year-old retired Washington state trooper and former marine Robert Koczewski, who collapsed of a stroke while trying to save his home in Carlton.
The reason there wasn’t a greater loss of life, says Carlene Anders, a volunteer firefighter with the Pateros station who has taken charge of the long-term recovery effort, “is because of the kind of community this is. With the resources we had, there is no way we could have dealt with it. It was the people of this town who took care of each other.”
Within hours, a relief center was established at the Pateros high school (it was later moved to an abandoned supermarket in the center of town), and for six weeks volunteers provided three meals a day, every day, for anyone in need.
Manthy Salcido, a mother of four whose home outside of Brewster burned down, started a business with her 17-year-old son, Zane, clearing scrap metal from burned-out houses: Property owners were glad to be rid of the charred, twisted metal, and Salcido has been raising money toward rebuilding her home.
In early October, with winter coming, there were still 70 people living in tents, carports, garages, and playhouses in the valley; as many as 50 a day were still coming to the Pateros disaster relief center for food and clothing. One of the greatest supporters of the relief center, donating supplies and volunteering time?
The orchardist family whose charred groves lie just north of town.
The Stenneses will never know who saved their houses. When the family evacuated the second time—ultimately fleeing to a friend’s house in Twisp—they spotted a fire truck from Whidbey Island parked just upriver from the homestead. Its crew may or may not have been their guardian angels.
Keith and his sons downplay their losses, but when pressed, they concede that the damages were staggering. Beyond the crop loss, which Mark estimates at $250,000 to $300,000 for this year’s harvest, they had to lay out $150,000 on generators, fuel, electrical panels, and sprinklers to keep the orchards irrigated during the weeks when the valley was without power; nearly six miles of deer fence burned in the fire and have to be replaced; pumping stations and stacks of fruit crates all went up in smoke. In some orchard blocks, 82 percent of the fruit was ruined. It will take six to seven years, Keith estimates, to get the trees back to prefire production.
“Whatever the loss is, we will pull through it,” he says, though the stress of juggling production loans and extending lines of credit to meet payroll is clearly taking its toll.
One hundred twenty years ago, Britanus Stennes stepped off a Columbia River steamer into a young, flammable town rising at the confluence of two canyons. Though the steamboat landing is long gone, and even the mighty glittering river has been dammed into a chain of lakes, the spot where Britanus came ashore is still the center of Pateros. A stone’s throw away stands the abandoned grocery store–turned–fire relief center Britanus’s descendants support. Three months on, Deb Stennes volunteers there nearly every day.
Britanus’s photograph is back on the wall of his grandson’s house by the river. Yes, Keith Stennes looked into the face of the fire and made the decision to leave. But he knows now that didn’t mean he was giving up. It mean keeping Britanus’s legacy alive.
Children ride their tricycles where the old Norwegian farmer—their great-great-grandfather—once grew dewberries and currants, and soon all that the Carlton Complex fire turned black will rise again and one day, barring another act of God, the orchards will be theirs.
This feature appeared in the December 2014 issue of Seattle Met magazine.