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Post-fire generosity amazes, continues into 2018 for Carleton and Okanogan fires

By Mary Stamp

Carlene Anders has prepared a presentation telling story of rebuilding from ashes.

As neighbors and strangers have volunteered to rebuild uninsured homes since the 2014 Carlton Complex Fire and 2015 Okanogan Complex Fire, Carlene Anders of Pateros said the communities affected are emerging closer and stronger.

From three years of coordinating the Okanogan County Long Term Recovery Group (LTRG), she is amazed by stories of survivors, volunteers and donors.

“Survivors who helped each other have recovered much faster.  When people helped, even if they were injured, they recovered faster because they felt connected,” she said. “Some who did not lose their homes found that helping others relieved their survivor’s guilt.”

The Okanogan County LTRG has videos recording stories and progress from fire to ashes to recovery online. 

Carlene will gather survivors, volunteers and donors to share stories at a Reflection and Appreciation Event July 18 to 22, 2018.

An Israeli man who immigrated from Morocco was overwhelmed by the generosity of people helping him in his time of loss and sorrow. 

He plans to pass on their kindness: “The pond will never stop refilling,” he said.

Carlene now is spending time in Texas sharing videos, tips, stories and what she has learned about long-term recovery.  She has helped start the National Disaster Leadership Team to mentor groups starting long-term recovery organizations since Hurricane Harvey and flooding. 

“I’m amazed,” Carlene said over and over about how volunteers and donors from 32 states, four countries and local communities have stepped up to help.

The 2014 Carlton Complex Fire was the largest single wildfire in Washington history, burning 415 square miles, 576 structures, utility infrastructure, cattle and wildlife, vehicles and crops.  Since the fire, she has helped coordinate efforts, first in Pateros/Brewster, the Methow Valley and the Chiliwist area. Then after the 2015 fire season, the Okanogan County LTRG added representatives from local Long Term Recovery Organizations (LTROs) in Chelan, Tonasket/Oroville, Omak/Okanogan and the Colville Tribe. 

She now oversees the Multi-County LTRG, which has assisted 2014/2015 fire survivors across Okanogan, Chelan, Douglas, Stevens and Ferry counties, and Colville Tribal lands.

The mission is to see that everyone displaced by the fires develops a plan of recovery and has safe, secure housing.

Fire is not new to Carlene.  It has been part of her life for 30 years. After graduating from Pateros High School, she studied communication and outdoor recreation at Washington State University full time for two years. Then she studied a semester a year for four years and paid her way through college by fighting forest fires.

When she was 18, Carlene fought fires with the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) for two years. In 1986, she went to work with the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), becoming one of the two first women in the state to smoke jump at North Cascades Smokejumper Base in Winthrop.  She spent several more years into the mid 1990s fighting fires with the USFS.

She joined the Douglas-Okanogan Fire District #15 as a volunteer firefighter, responding out of the Methow and Pateros fire stations from the early 1990s to 2002.

Her grandparents moved from Montana to Brewster/Pateros in 1947. Her mother graduated in Brewster. Her father was a Navy pilot.  Carlene was born in Chula Vista, Calif.  In 1974, her parents bought an orchard and settled again in the Methow Valley.

In 1988, Carlene married Gene Dowers, whom she met in the rowing program at WSU. After she graduated in 1990, they were in Seattle a year for her internship with the U.S. Rowing Association, Seattle Parks and Recreation, and The Goodwill Games.

After coaching women’s rowing two years at Gonzaga University, Gene completed a master’s and coached rowing a year at WSU in Pullman. In 1993, they moved to her grandmother’s place on the Okanogan River in Brewster. 

Carlene taught PE at Pateros until her daughter, Jessi, was born in 1996.  Then she opened a daycare/preschool and coached track and field.  She was The Loup Loup Ski Bowl’s ski school director for 17 years.

In 2002, their son Danny was born prematurely, at 24 weeks, weighing one pound 10 ounces.

“His birth changed our lives.  The little frustrations of life melted away. We could clearly see what was truly important,” she said.

She then resigned from the fire department to spend more time caring for their son. They spent most of 128 days with Danny in a Seattle hospital.  The community rallied behind them, helping them keep their preschool/daycare open. For Carlene, the long-term recovery work has been a way to pay the community back. 

In 2012, Danny was doing well, so when Jessica was 16 and joined the Fire Department, Carlene joined again. Jessica graduated from high school in 2014. 

On Monday, July 14, 2014, there were 256 lightning ground strikes in Washington.  By Tuesday, four strikes still were burning in the Methow Valley and on Thursday, July 20, they merged into the largest wildfire in the history of Washington State.

“I have never seen such a fire. We were dispatched Tuesday at 5 p.m., and did not stop until 6 a.m. Saturday,” Carlene said. “Thursday at 1 p.m. winds picked up to 70 mph and the fire went crazy.

“I was up the valley protecting a ranch and called my mother to tell her to prepare to evacuate.  She could not see the fire,” Carlene said.

Later that day, learning Pateros’ water source was threatened, all Pateros units went there.  They had to decide whether to save houses or the business district. 

“We chose to save the business district. If it was lost, no one would come back to rebuild,” Carlene said.

Some firefighters went around Pateros, Alta Lake and nearby areas with a megaphone telling people to evacuate.  Thousands left.

Yancey’s Hardware on the main street caught on fire. Firefighters put it out and saved downtown.

The fire burned through August.  It was fully contained Sept. 8. 

Pateros lost 10 percent of its houses, 40 in all, plus Alta Lake lost 52 homes. Carlene’s mother’s home up McFarland Creek perished as well.

About 40 percent had insurance and rebuilt.  The LTRG has helped rebuild 21 uninsured houses to date. Before the fire, 660 lived in Pateros and after it, 525.  Now there are 580.

After the fire, Carlene, who still fights fires, gave up her job at the preschool.  She was appointed to the Pateros City Council in late 2014 and was elected  mayor of Pateros two years ago.

She began with the Pateros/Brewster LTRO in September 2014 and became executive director of Okanogan County’s LTRO Jan. 1, 2015.

With the LTRG, she connects with people she knows across the county and region.  Thousands of people have been involved.  In 2016 alone, people had given nearly 45,000 volunteer hours.

Volunteers came from Amish communities across the U.S., AmeriCorps, Catholic Relief Services, Christian Aid Ministries, Jesuit Volunteer Corps NW, Mennonite Disaster Services, the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, United Methodist Committee on Relief, World Renew of the Christian Reformed Church, and area Baptist, Catholic, Four Square, Independent, Latter-Day Saints, Presbyterian, United Methodist and other churches.

People from church and nonprofit groups still come to help.  Groups worked in November to build homes on four foundations poured in October. 

“Now when folks come, they wonder where the fire was, because much of the area is green. They don’t know what was once here,” Carlene said.  “Long-time residents know where a house, fence or shed once stood. We see what is missing all the time.”

While people lost everything—including the documents they needed to file claims—people were resilient and resourceful, Carlene said.

For two years, a teen whose mother’s uninsured home burned down recruited volunteers to help his mother and him collect and load metal from 127 burned homes.  They sold it to rebuild their home.

Foundations of burned structures were compromised, so pieces were hauled to a city lot, ground up and used as new sidewalks.

Most had to rebuild on their own with no federal funding, because FEMA denied individual assistance, Carlene said.

The LTRG used volunteers, donations and grants to rebuild. In phase two, they finished replacing 15 homes. In phase three, eight more are planned, bringing the total homes replaced to 35. The final five will start in the spring with the goal to finish next fall. 

There have been 1,700 cases referred to Disaster Case Management (DCM) for resources.  Unmet needs go to the “Roundtable,” donors who have met at 9:30 a.m. Fridays for three years to review anonymous cases. The Okanogan County LTRG has distributed more than $680,000 in funds over the past three years on behalf of partner agencies and groups towards ummet needs.

In addition to visiting newly forming LTROs in Texas, Carlene has traveled extensively to visit and thank groups who came.

“The Pateros Methodist Church is my church, but I used to ski on Sundays, so I didn’t go often.  Now I go to churches to visit people who helped us.  I have gone to church more in the last two years than in the 10 years before,” she said.

Media helped tell the story and draw volunteers, but tourists saw the devastation and stayed away.

While Carlene expects the loss of tourism will impact the economy for a while, the economy has been strengthened by volunteers, who stay in hotels, eat at restaurants and shop in town, and by the influx/sale of resources needed for rebuilding.

For information, call 509-449-3235, email or visit

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