It wasn't the way the regular City Council meeting was supposed to begin, but Monday wasn't a regular day here in the charred wake of the Carlton Complex fire, which officials described as the most serious in the nation as more residents were ordered to flee.
"In fire dynamics in the U.S., of all the incidents in the country, you're No. 1," Rocky Opliger, one of four incident commanders charged with overseeing the conflagration, told more than 100 residents who gathered by the shores of the Columbia River for an evening disaster update.
The fire, one of several in Washington state, has consumed about 240,000 acres and destroyed at least 150 homes, which will probably make it the biggest in state history, officials said Monday.
The fire is 2% to 5% contained. Residents near the Okanogan County town of Carlton were ordered to evacuate Monday afternoon, and a stretch of State Highway 20 was closed.
A man died over the weekend in the same general area as Monday afternoon's evacuation order. Robert E. Koczewski, 67, “and his wife had been the fighting the fire for three days,” Okanogan County Sheriff Frank T. Rogers told the Los Angeles Times in an interview Monday. “She said no firetrucks had come through. They did everything they could to save their home, and they did. But on Saturday, he had a heart attack.”
He was the sole casualty so far.
Pateros Mayor Libby Harrison opened the Monday evening meeting with a tearful welcome.
"First of all, I would just like to welcome the community and say how sorry I am to everyone out there who has lost a home," she said, choking up, as a generator hummed in the background. "I have lost a home, and I just want you to know that we as a community are going to pull together and make this town even better."
The crowd, which gathered outside because there were too many people to fit into City Hall, cheered. But the news at the meeting was grim.
Utility crews are working double shifts to restore power to the small city, although no one could say when the lights will come back on. There should be information in coming days about whether the water is safe to drink.
Mail delivery has returned to the small city about 200 miles northeast of Seattle for the first time in three business days.
"The reason we didn't get mail before was that our mail trucks did not go through," Pateros Postmaster Toni Roberson told the crowd. "I know the old saying, 'Rain, sleet, wind.' Fire was not on there."
The Carlton fire is one of about 20 major wildfires burning in the arid Northwest. It began July 14, the result of lightning strikes.
Some of the danger has decreased as the 1,622 firefighters and support personnel have been battling the blaze, according to Jeff Sevigney, fire information officer for the task force working to control the fire. On Sunday, “we were able to start doing some actual containment work such as building fire lines,” he said.
The number of destroyed houses has been rising, Rogers said, and could reach 200. An additional 1,000 are threatened, he said.
“And here is the sad thing,” Rogers said. “It is not even fire season.”