On August 14, 2015, lightning storms ignite the Okanogan Complex fires, which soon grow into some of the biggest in the state's worst-ever wildfire year. It begins with several separate fires in the timber and grasslands above Omak and Conconully in Okanogan County in North Central Washington. Within three days, large fires are raging on both sides of the Okanogan River. At one point, the fire burns all the way into Omak before being beaten back by firefighters. West of Omak, the resort town of Conconully is evacuated after the fire crosses the Conconully Highway. Many Okanogan County residents are without power and are evacuated to emergency shelters. On August 20, another fire breaks out near Twisp and three firefighters die during a crash as they attempt to escape the flames. When the smoke clears in the fall, the Okanogan Complex and the related Tunk Block fire constitute two of the biggest fires in what has become the worst wildfire season in state history (but because they never merge, they do not surpass the state record for the largest single fire, set the year before).
The fires that became known as the Okanogan Complex fires began on the stormy night of August 14 in the hills above the Okanogan County towns of Omak, Okanogan, Riverside, and Conconully. The original fires were the Lime Belt fire, which began about three miles northeast of Conconully; the Blue Lake fire, which began about six miles northeast of Conconully; the Beaver Lake fire, which began about 15 miles west of Omak; and the the Tunk Block fire, which began on the opposite (east) side of the Okanogan River, about four miles northeast of Riverside. Another fire, the Nine Mile fire, had begun a day earlier on August 13, at a considerable distance from the other fires, about three miles northeast of Oroville (it was officially added to the Okanogan Complex on August 17, although later removed).
On August 17, in the first news release about the Okanogan Complex fires, authorities on InciWeb, the interagency clearinghouse for wildfire information, reported that "these fires are all minimally staffed" but "despite the lack of firefighting resources, some good progress was made" ("Aug 17 Update"). As of that date, the Lime Belt fire was about 4,000 acres, the Blue Lake fire was 800 acres, the Tunk Block fire was 2,000 acres, the Beaver Lake fire was 400 acres, and the Nine Mile fire was 4,704 acres.
On August 18, the fires grew alarmingly because of hot, dry, breezy weather. The Lime Belt and Blue Lake fires merged and mushroomed to 14,662 acres. This fire burned all the way across the Conconully Highway between Conconully and Omak. Authorities ordered the 200-person fishing resort of Conconully evacuated. Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers said it "was like driving into one of those weird scenes, with that glowing red everywhere" (Mehaffey). About 135 firefighters were working to contain it.
The Tunk Block fire jumped across the Okanogan River and Highway 97 and burned "into the northwest side of Omak near the airport before being stopped by firefighters" ("Aug 19 Update"). Fortunately, firefighters were able to extinguish that portion of the fire before it burned deeper into Omak. Yet four homes and one outbuilding burned. About 84 firefighters were working on that part of the fire. More than 100 more homes would eventually burn throughout the complex.
August 19 and 20 were even worse. The fires tripled in size to 96,034 acres. The "fires were very active all night," and into the dawn of August 20 ("Aug 20 Update"). Crews were working around the clock. By this time, there were 729 firefighters, seven helicopters, 27 dozers, and 50 engines battling these blazes. Many Okanogan County residents were now without power, and many had been evacuated to Red Cross shelters in Brewster and Tonasket. Heavy smoke hung over the region. Meanwhile, a new fire had sprung up on August 20, dubbed the Twisp River fire, just northwest of the town of Twisp. It grew in one day to nearly 8,000 acres (and would ultimately become part of the Okanogan Complex).
The Twisp River fire was the scene of the fire season's worst tragedy. On August 20, firefighters Tom Zbyszewski, Andrew Zajac, and Richard Wheeler died while attempting to escape from the rampaging fire when their fire engine crashed and was enveloped in flames. A fourth firefighter, Daniel Lyon, was seriously burned and remained hospitalized for months.
On August 21, windy conditions caused the fires to expand greatly again and fire authorities reported that this complex of fires was "dramatically affecting the communities of Winthrop, Omak Flats, Riverside, Tonasket, Buzzard Lake, Neville Ridge, Loup Loup Meadows, and Okanogan" ("Aug 21 Update"). On August 22, the combined fires grew to 239,733 acres and were only 10 percent contained. A number of structures burned. The Twisp River fire was now threatening the edges of the town of Twisp.
Size of the Fires
On August 24, the combined fires had grown to 256,657 acres, causing news outlets around the state to dub the Okanogan Complex fires "the biggest in state history," surpassing 2014's Carlton Complex fire of 256,108 acres (Bush and Bernton). By the measure of total devastation, these Okanogan Complex fires were indeed the biggest in state history, although they were not a single huge fire and (in contrast to the Carlton Complex the year before) the biggest parts of the Okanogan Complex would never actually merge.
By August 27, there were 1,774 firefighters from 33 states battling the blazes and beginning to get the upper hand. The fires continued to grow, but more slowly from this point on, mostly because armies of firefighters had established containment lines. As of August 30, the Okanogan Complex fires were 25 percent contained. The size had grown to more than 304,782 acres -- an unheard-of number for any state wildfire.
The Okanogan Complex had now reached its maximum official size, although the acreage would actually be cut in half a day later, entirely because of a change in official nomenclature. On August 31, one of the largest parts of the Okanogan Complex, the Tunk Block fire, was officially removed from the Okanogan Complex and listed as a separate fire of 161,440 acres. It was removed because it had never merged, as feared, with the other main component of the Okanogan Complex, the Lime Belt/Blue Lake/Beaver Lake fire -- although it had come within a mile just north of Omak. By this time, the Tunk Block fire was moving in the other direction and threatening to merge with a separate fire on its other flank to the east, the massive North Star fire. Because of this change in designation, on August 31 officials dropped the acreage of the Okanogan Complex to 144,179 acres -- although the total amount of fire, regardless of name, was growing bigger than ever.
Burning Across the State
These were by no means the only fires in the region. On August 14, the same night that the Okanogan Complex fires ignited, to the southwest in Chelan County the fires that became known as the Chelan Complex fires were sparked not far from the town of Chelan. These fires raged north of town in the sections of forests that had been spared from the 2014 Carlton Complex fires, and also in an area south of town. The Chelan Complex fires would eventually burn down a total of 23 residences. The North Star fire, on Colville Indian Reservation land just to the east of the Okanogan Complex fires, had begun on August 13 and eventually grew even bigger than either section of the Okanogan Complex fires. Areas south of Republic were evacuated, as well as areas along Highway 155, including the town of Disautel. The North Star fire was continuing to expand as September began.
By September 3, the fires in both the Okanogan and Chelan complexes were 50 percent contained. By mid-September the fires were almost completely contained, although it would take another month before the first snowfalls finally extinguished them. The Okanogan Complex fires had burned down a total 120 residences. Because of timely evacuation measures, the three firefighter deaths on the Twisp River would remain the only fatalities. When the smoke finally cleared, the 2015 wildfires in central Washington were officially listed with the following acreages: Okanogan Complex, 133,707 acres; Tunk Block, 165,918 acres; North Star, 218,138 acres; Chelan Complex, 88,985 acres; and Nine Mile, 4,704 acres.
If the Okanogan Complex, Tunk Block, and Nine Mile acreage were added together, as they originally were, it would add up to considerably more than 300,000 acres, far larger than any previous wildfire in the state. However, as The Wenatchee World pointed out, the Okanogan Complex fires remained several separate fires, with no single fire as large as the 2014 Carlton Complex. The 256,108-acre Carlton Complex had begun as four separate fires but merged into one massive fire and thus remained, by the paper's reckoning, the "largest single fire in state history" (Riggs).
The Okanogan Complex, Tunk Block, North Star, and Chelan Complex fires were the state's four largest fires in 2015, yet many other wildfires devastated the eastern slopes of the Cascades and the timberlands of northeast Washington that summer. There was even a wildfire on the normally soggy Olympic Peninsula in Western Washington. The root causes were, according to the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR), "the warmest Washington summer on record, ... a vanishing snowpack ... and years of persistent drought," which all added up to what DNR called "Washington's worst wildfire season in human memory, with more than a million acres burned" (Wildfire Summary 2015").