TWISP, WA (August 31, 2015) — Covenant pastor Jeff Palmberg, who evacuated his home on August 19 in the face of the threat of the Okanogan Complex Fire, returned last week to find his house still standing but a community mourning the deaths of three firefighters and wondering about its future as the blaze has hobbled the local economy.
Although no members of Community Covenant Church lost property or were injured, a few homes in the community were destroyed, Palmberg said. About half of the 3,000 area residents did not heed the mandatory evacuation order, he added.
On the day he evacuated, Palmberg said he believed the order to leave was probably precautionary, explaining, “When we were in town it didn’t look that close.”
He posted two photos to his Facebook account on Sunday night. One showed the home of a church member with smoke rising in the background and flames stretching high into the sky.
Palmberg said the fires were just several miles away when the photos were taken.
“The thing right now is all the emotions over the firefighters,” he said.
The three firefighters were killed the day the blaze erupted when their truck rolled down a ravine and was overtaken by flames when the winds shifted. One of those killed, 20-year-old Tom Zbyszewski, was known to many in the surrounding communities.
Palmberg said many in the town also are concerned for the future because the area is heavily dependent on tourism. The fires have kept tourists away. He posted on his Facebook account today that “Two of our friends have taken a serious hit to their hotel businesses” and encouraged people to travel to the area.
One friend, Gene Westlund, told the Seattle Times that his business, the 30-room Winthrop Inn, had lost $30,000 so far. On Thursday he had one room rented.
Smoke in the area has finally begun to dissipate. Palmberg said when he returned home, the air quality index stood at 170, far worse than Beijing, a city with some of the worst air pollution in the world.
The complex of fires had consumed 304,782 acres as of August 30, and has become the largest wildfire in state history. They have yet to be fully contained.