In small-town Conconully, some stay behind to brave the fire

When fire came over Funk Mountain to the north and headed toward Conconully on the evening of Aug. 18, most residents and visitors fled this small fishing resort town north of Omak.

But a week later -- despite losing electricity and telephones -- local firefighters and a small group of residents are still here, hoping to save their small town from the fire still burning toward them from another direction of the Okanogan Complex.

The landline phone service is back, but the power is not as firefighters make their stand against this fire.

Zac Claussen, the town’s volunteer fire chief who doubles as Conconully’s public works superintendent, said other than firefighters, “Nobody should be here.”

The town’s been at a Level 3 evacuation since last Tuesday, when everyone was advised to leave immediately.

But some people in this town of 220 full-time residents just won’t leave, so he uses a whiteboard at the fire hall to track who’s here, and who’s not.

On Monday, a couple dozen names were on the board, letting firefighters know at a glance the residents who are still around. If someone comes back for the day, they write their name at the bottom, and erase it when they leave.

Claussen said if fire does move into town, people know the situation. “We may be able to get to you, and we may be able to get you out.” But there’s no guarantee.

Tom Orr, who moved to Conconully 23 years ago after retiring from the Coast Guard, said the fire hasn’t gotten close enough to convince him to leave, even when the rest of the town was making its exit last week.

“If it gets up there on the top of that ridge, I’ll leave,” he said, pointing toward the west. On the hillside below, firefighters were clearing brush from around the town’s irrigation ditch that provides its gravity-fed water system.

Orr said he stayed partly to help protect his home in case fire does come. He said he has confidence in the firefighters, especially Conconully’s volunteer force of 15 firefighters, and the 20 firefighters from Okanogan County Fire District 9, which covers the area surrounding Conconully. In recent days, he’s seen reinforcements from all over the state -- Port Angeles, and Mason and Clallam counties.

“They’re doing fantastic,” he said, adding, “Town is all ringed in fire hoses and sprinklers.”

At first, except for the local volunteers, resources were scarce. The fire started in the Aug. 14 lighting storm, and fire officials agree it began as a single lightning strike on Shallow Mountain. “The fire district that’s surrounding us, they’ve been huffing and puffing since then,” Claussen said.

District 9 Chief Tim Tugaw said one of his members called in the fire, but it was on the top of a mountain, and too steep for them to respond. Without air support, the fire took off. “From there, we’ve been running the whole week,” he said, adding, “We’re all volunteers, and we’ve all been out of work for a week.”

Sam Martin, the town’s mayor, said he never left with the masses. He wanted to stay to support his fire crews and so he can see, firsthand, what happens to his town.

Although the effort was going well, he said, “It would be a lot better if we had power and water, and if the smoke would lift,” he said.

Resident Dennis Papa said he left on Aug. 18, when he saw 100-foot flames over Funk Mountain.

He said with no way out to the north and fire lapping at the road to the south, people were worried they might get trapped. “Things were at a pretty high pitch, and for a little while, it looked grim, it really did,” he said. “But then word came there was a break, that we could make it through.”

He said he was with a steady stream of traffic driving out, with fire on both sides of the road. “If you had car failure, you’d be in trouble,” he said. “It was a wall of flames. I never thought I’d live through anything like it.”

Papa said he came back the next day, and decided to stay.

He said he knows it’s still very dangerous, as the fire is very active on Peacock Mountain, and could still come into town.

But, he said, “These guys need help. We want to support them. If we want to save this town, we’ve got to pitch in.”

Dick and Bonnie Coppock, who raise apples and hay near Omak, came up Monday just to collect their boat and snowmobiles. They use their Conconully house for recreation in the summer and winter. Now retired from the U.S. Forest Service, Dick Coppock said he was disappointed there wasn’t more aggressive action to protect the town.

He said he wants to see the Okanogan Complex fire managers doing something to prevent fire from making it here, like using heavy equipment to cut fire lines or burning out areas of unburned timber between the fire and these threatened homes.

“Instead of sitting here waiting for the fire to come here, I would cut fireline and tie it into the Tripod Fire trails,” he said.

Coppock said he spent the last several days protecting his own farm. He and his wife also convinced their elderly neighbor in Conconully, Ziggy Sekste, to evacuate and stay with them. It wasn’t until Monday that they had a chance to come and retrieve the boat, he added.

His neighbors, DeVona and Mary Ellen Gibson, also came back Monday to check on things. The Gibsons are sisters and lifelong residents of Conconully. After staying in town for a few days, Jack Imes, a friend in Omak, convinced them to stay with him.

For the Gibson sisters, saving this town is important. Their father built the Conconully General Store, and their mother was a school teacher here.

It isn’t the first time Conconully’s been threatened, DeVona said. “We had the flood in 1948. I was 6,” she said. They went to stay at a neighbor’s house just up the street, on higher ground. Water ran through the streets, she said, but the town was fine.

Gibson recalled when embers from the Fish Lake Gibson Creek Fire were blowing into Conconully. That was in 1977, on the fire that killed a 28-year-old local smokejumper, Ron Neely.

Now, even with a huge fire still burning just outside of town, Gibson said she’s not too worried. “Maybe I’m being Pollyanna,” she said, “but we’ll be fine.”