On Friday August 14, 2015, lightning struck near Antoine Creek Road, eight and half miles north of Chelan in Central Washington, igniting a parched forest—a tinderbox of arid wild grass and thirsty conifers—and the blaze quickly spread to homes. The volunteers of Douglas Okanogan Fire District 15’s Pateros station swept into action.
This year it was personal. Eleven months earlier the Carlton Complex Fire had ripped through their city, Pateros, population 660, leaving ashen husks where before there had been homes—in all, 84 were lost in and around the town. Now with their community still in recovery from last year’s inferno, the volunteer firefighters—a team that includes a tattooed chiropractor, a high school student, an industrial painter, and a retired carpenter—rushed to the aid of residents evacuating or soon to evacuate their homes on Antoine Creek.
For the next 24 hours, the Pateros crew would be chased by a firestorm tossed by 45-mile-per-hour gusts, help ranchers flee the flames that lapped at their homes, and ignite a backfire in an attempt to rob the larger conflagration of its potential fuel. They would work through the night—moving on to a blaze near Alta Lake, closer to home—and through the next day and the next, with no sleep save for the occasional stolen catnap.
By summer’s end, the 2015 wildfire season would surpass 2014’s and go down as the biggest in state history. It reaped tens of millions of dollars in damages. It claimed a combined 400 square miles—and the lives of three firefighters.
But in those first few hours, the Pateros volunteers were there to stand between the flames and all-out destruction. And Seattle photojournalist David Ryder was there to capture their fight. —James Ross Gardner