The Carlton Complex wildfire destroys 111 homes in and around the town of Pateros on the Columbia River on July 17, 2014.

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 12/08/2014
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10990
On July 17, 2014, the Carlton Complex wildfire destroys 111 homes in and around the town of Pateros, located on the Columbia River in Okanogan County. Earlier that day, hot winds propel the fire toward Pateros and put the town's 667 residents in danger. The sheriff begins evacuating the entire town, in some cases threatening laggards with arrest. The evacuation is a success and when the fire finally races in a little after 8 p.m., no one is killed or injured. However, the flames engulf about 40 homes in Pateros and many others in nearby Alta Lake and other outlying areas. Residents flee to an evacuation center in Chelan and return the next day to scenes of devastation, although the main business district is spared. The Carlton Complex fire will grow to 256,108 acres, surpassing the 1902 Yacolt Burn as the largest wildfire recorded in Washington history.

Lightning Strikes

Lightning ignited the Carlton Complex fires on July 14, 2014. At first residents of Pateros had little reason for alarm. The four initial fires burned many miles to the north in the hills above Carlton and Twisp. Pateros is in a low, green, and seemingly protected spot on the north bank of the Columbia River, where the Methow River enters. The Red Cross set up an evacuation center there for people fleeing the fires from the north.

Yet on July 17, hot winds fanned the flames into what authorities called "one long, continuous firestorm" that raced south at breathtaking speed ("Brewster Not Being Evacuated"). At 3 p.m., the fire was still five miles away from Pateros, yet "the wind is taking it where it chooses to go" said a fire official (Lacitis and Mannix ). By 5 p.m., authorities realized that the town and the adjacent resort area of Alta Lake were in immediate danger.

Emergency Evacuation

Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers and his deputies ordered a Level 3 evacuation -- the most urgent kind. One resident said that he, like many of his neighbors, was busy hosing down his roof and yard. A deputy drove up and ordered them via megaphone to get out immediately.

"He was pretty mad sounding," said the resident. "He yelled, ‘Everybody get out or I'll cuff people!' At that point I figured I better evacuate" (Lacitis and Mannix).

Rogers said that one resident could not find her car keys as flames advanced on her yard. Fortunately, another neighbor showed up and drove her to safety. It was "pandemonium on the streets of Pateros "and people were "crying on the side of the road" (Lacitis and Mannix). Electricity was cut off and the smoke was so thick that residents had no clear idea what was happening. The Red Cross shelter sent its evacuees to safety in Okanogan.

A Funnel of Fire

At about 8 p.m. the flames blew all of the way into the now-empty town of Pateros. One man said he drove away just as the fire reached the front of his home. It was, he said, "just a funnel of fire -- all you could do was watch her go" (Lacitis and Mannix). The fire swept down two of the city's streets and burned homes in what appeared to be a random pattern. Some homes -- but not all -- were spared because homeowners had cleared the surrounding areas of brush and dry grass. The Carlton Complex fire created such furious winds aloft that flaming embers fell from the sky onto the roofs of homes.

"It's been nuts," said an exhausted Sheriff Rogers the next morning. "We were on roads telling people to leave and three hours later it was all gone. Everybody's been notified. I just hope they all left" ("At Least 95 Homes Gone in Pateros"). The fire also swept southward to the outlying community of Alta Lake, and destroyed about 40 homes along with the Alta Lake Golf Course's pro shop and maintenance shop. That area had also been evacuated and the fire caused no deaths or injuries.

More than a hundred of the evacuees went to a Red Cross shelter at Chelan High School, about 20 miles away. On July 18, Washington Governor Jay Inslee (b. 1951) visited the shelter and said, "You're the center of the state right now" (Lacitis and Mannix).

Returning to Devastation

Many people returned to Pateros that morning. The town's mayor, Libby Harrison, soon discovered that she, along with many other families, had a long job of rebuilding ahead. Nothing was left of her home except the driveway. As she surveyed the damage, she said she was "still in shock" (Lacitis and Mannix). Some residential streets looked like a "bomb had been dropped on them" (Lacitis and Mannix).

The town's small business district was spared. Pateros High School survived intact, despite initial reports that it had had burned, and the school became a community center for aid and donations. The American Red Cross later established a Client Service Center in Pateros, and a former grocery store was converted to the Pateros Relief Center.

The worst was over for Pateros, but the Carlton Complex fire would also burn many homes around Brewster, Carlton, and in the Chiliwist Valley near Malott. By the time the fire was declared 100 percent contained on August 24, 2014, the Carlton Complex fire had claimed 353 homes and burned a total of 256,108 acres, making it the largest wildfire recorded in Washington history. (A year later, another fire complex, the Okanogan Complex, was reported to have surpassed the Carlton Complex in acreage, but the fires forming the Okanogan Complex never merged into a single huge fire and were ultimately recorded as two separate fires, so the Carlton Complex fire remained the state's largest single wildfire.)

Mayor Harrison later stepped down to deal with family needs. The new mayor, George Brady, said in October 2014 that many of the town's losses were not covered by insurance. However, he said the town was steadily rebuilding and, in general, "I think we're fine" ("100 Days After the Firestorm"). 


Sources: "Incident Information," InciWeb Incident Information System website accessed November 5, 2014 (http://inciweb.nwcg.gov/incident/3967/); K.C. Mehaffey, "At Least 95 Homes Gone in Pateros, Methow Valley Fires," The Wenatchee World, July 18, 2014, website accessed November 6, 2014 (http://www.wenatcheeworld.com/news/2014/jul/18/least-95-homes-gone-pateros-methow-valley-fires/); Michelle McNiel, "Brewster Not Being Evacuated Tonight," The Wenatchee World, July 18, 2014, website accessed November 6, 2014 (http://www.wenatcheeworld.com/news/2014/jul/18/one-long-continuous-fire-storm-winthrop-brewster/); Erik Lacitis and Andy Mannix, "Pandemonium as Blaze Roars Downhill to Engulf Pateros," The Seattle Times, July 18, 2014, (http://seattletimes.com/html/localnews/2024107276_wildfirepaterosxml.html); K. C. Mehaffey, "Fire Plows Through Pateros, Methow Valley," The Wenatchee World, July 17, 2014, website accessed November 5, 2014 (http://www.wenatcheeworld.com/news/2014/jul/17/methow-fires-continue-to-rage-with-no-containment/); K. C. Mehaffey, "100 Days After the Firestorm," The Wenatchee World, October 24, 2014, p. A-1; Jim Camden, "Residents Rebuilding After Fires, Flood," The Spokesman-Review, September 16, 2014, p. A-1; Historylink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Lightning storms ignite Okanogan Complex fires, which will soon grow into some of the biggest in Washington's worst-ever wildfire year, on August 14, 2015." (by Jim Kershner), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed April 19, 2016).
Note: This essay was updated on August 26, 2015, and revised on April 19, 2016.

Related Topics:   Calamities | Environment

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both HistoryLink.org and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for HistoryLink.org Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You