Chelan Complex Fire Eats Up More Ground As Residents Sift Through The Ashes

Aug 18, 2015

The Chelan Complex Fire in central Washington has now topped 100,000-acres and about 3,000 people have been evacuated.

This part of the state is famous for its apples. And just as harvest is about to start, one of the world’s largest apple marketing and packing co-ops has burned up.

The galas are just getting ripe enough to pick. Later, will come the goldens, fujis and pink ladies. But all these apples will stack up if Chelan Fruit doesn’t come up with a new and complicated plan quickly.

About 300 growers’ apples used to funnel into this large complex each fall. But last week it couldn’t be saved.

‘We got everybody out’

Soot-stained concrete walls list and have collapsed. Ash and debris roll with the wind in drifts among the burnt up forklifts and old school buses they used for their workers.

The fire came over the hill with stiff winds.

''A lot of embers flying all over, next thing we know we had evacuation notice... It was unbelievable how fast it hit and how hot it was.''

“A lot of embers flying all over, next thing we know we had evacuation notice, got rid of our people -- several hundred working here. Got rid of them, that was the most important thing. No life-threatening deals --- we got everybody out,” Chelan Fruit CEO Reggie Collins said. “It was unbelievable how fast it hit and how hot it was.”

Several hundred thousand apple bins went up in flames quickly, then the warehouses. Now they’re trying to make lists of what’s been lost.

“About $50 or $80 million, but somewhere in that ballpark we haven’t had the chance to assess all that yet,” Collins said describing the damage. “But we’ve lost equipment, and storage rooms, packing facilities and bins and pallets. And all the packaging equipment and all of the packaging materials and fork lifts and you know it keeps continuing to keep going on.”

Now, Collins is focused on finding space to sort, box and store this fruit. The company usually packs more than 300,000 bins of apples a year. Each bin holds 900 pounds. Hundreds of workers reported here. Some nearby sheds have called to offer help.

Collins said it will take years to replace this plant.

‘We’re just happy to be alive'

The losses for the Collins family didn’t end with the packing sheds. Up a winding road above the Columbia River -- is where his sister Carmen’s home stood just last week.

The views on the rim of this bluff are breathtaking.

Carmen Collins is in her 70s now. It was her retirement dream. The fire took it down to the concrete footings.

''It came so quickly. I had about three minutes to get out. I grabbed my purse and keys and left the door wide open. It was five months old. Brand new home.''

“We’re just happy to be alive. Just happy to be alive,” she said. “It came so quickly. I had about three minutes to get out. I grabbed my purse and keys and left the door wide open. It was five months old. Brand new home.”

“This was my dream home I’d been planning for 21 years,” she added. “I am sorry, I keep thinking, I keep thinking I’ve cried every tear, but I guess I haven’t.”

In the family’s orchard just a few steps from the house, still-warm baked apples hang from the trees. The trees’ leaves dried on the branches like an early, eerie fall.

The family organized a work party and raked through the ash to find anything of worth. Relief came through tears, plentiful margaritas in Solo cups and a bit of laughter.

Carmen isn’t sure if she’ll rebuild on this beautiful ground again. Firefighters and her neighbors are repeating this same drama all around Chelan.

In this spot, it could all happen again.