‘In a second it was gone’: Recovery continues a year after state’s largest wildfire

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BREWSTER, Wash. — It is believed to have been a Roman philosopher who first said that “home is where the heart is.”

A nice saying, but it doesn’t make losing a home any easier.

“You just look at 13 years of our hard work and what we put into it and in a second it was gone,” said Michele Lindquist at her family’s ranch outside the town of Brewster.

She recalled the day that fire swept over the hillside above their home, destroying nearly everything they owned.

“Everything was smoldering. And it’s just like someone takes the life and sucks it right out of you.”

On July 14, 2014, lighting sparked what would turn into the largest wildfire in Washington state history. The Carlton Complex Fire decimated more than 250,000 acres, prompted mass evacuations, and burned about 300 homes to the ground.

More than a year later, those who lost everything are at varying stages of recovery.

“I remember one of my troopers saying, 'Pateros is gone,'" said Michele Lindquist’s husband, Lex, who is a sergeant with the Washington State Patrol. “I remember telling her, Listen, grab what you can grab, but get the hell out as fast as you can.”

Sgt. Lindquist left his home behind to help with evacuations, knowing he would likely never see it again.

He returned to a smoldering pile of rubble and ash.

“I knew we had lost our place even before I made it through the fire line, because I didn’t think there was any way it’d survived,” he said. “The fire was still burning everywhere. I pulled up and there was absolutely nothing left.”

On a sweltering day in early July of this year, Michele and Lex stood outside their new house, overlooking the same sweeping hillsides they used to peer out at from the windows of their old home.

It took eight months to rebuild, with the help of insurance, although there is still work to be done around the ranch.

“It’s a beautiful house. I love being back on the property,” Michele said. “But it’s just – it’s not home, but it is.”

She said she still doesn’t feel connected to the new house and often misses the things that were left behind.

“What do you think it will take to make it really feel like home again?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t. I mean, we as a family will make this home.”

“She couldn’t make it through without me and I couldn’t make it through without her and the kids,” Lex said, glancing toward his wife. “We rely on each other daily. We have for 20 years.”

A 20-minute drive from the Lindquist ranch, on Old Highway 97 in rural Okanogan County, lies a homestead built by Emilie and Baron McGaha’s great-grandfather in 1931 – what’s left of it, at least.

Baron and Emilie have returned to the property several times since it was destroyed by the Carlton Complex Fire, rummaging through charred remnants of the home where four generations of their family lived.

“That used to be an end table. It used to sit next to our grandpa’s chair,” Emilie said, pointing at a twisted piece of metal.

She recalled the moment she drove over a nearby hill and the destruction came into view.

“I pulled over at the neighbor’s driveway and, just, I was shocked,” she said. “I couldn’t believe it. For 22 years for me, and for everybody else even longer, there was always a house here. It’s still shocking to turn into the driveway and not see a house.”

More than a year after the fire, the family has been unable to rebuild. The property looks much like it did the day after the fire hit.

“It’s going to be a process (to rebuild),” Baron said. “But we’ll always have it, that’s for sure.”

When they do rebuild, Emilie said, they hope to incorporate one of the only things still standing – a massive brick fireplace they spent so many days sitting around as a family.

“Hopefully, eventually (we’ll) put some sort of cabin or something back on it, just so we can still have some place to call home.”

If you would like to volunteer to help rebuild homes destroyed by the Carlton Complex Fire, or for information on how to donate to the recovery effort, you can call the Carlton Complex Long Term Recovery Group at (509) 733-0318 or send an email to carltoncomplexrebuild@gmail.com.

Volunteer efforts are also being coordinated by the Methow Conservancy, which can be reached at (509) 996-2870, or online at www.methowconservancy.org.