Okanogan County Long Term Recovery Group assists family, 31 others, in rebuilding after fires

DESAUTEL – When Dennis Best returned to his house in his small GMC Sonoma pickup in August 2015, he did not imagine within the hour the home in which he and his wife, Susan, had raised their children and lived for 25 years would burn to the ground.  

The Tunk Block Fire, which had been burning for six days at that point, was on Van Brunt Ridge several miles to the north as Dennis drove down Haley Creek Road, a small dirt road that winds along the Colville Reservation’s Omak Creek. 

At that point, though he and his wife had been evacuated, he was not feeling panicked. Emergency response personnel parked at the Haley Creek turnoff on Highway 155 waved him through.

Dennis intended to load his pickup with his third small load and return to Omak where the couple stayed with their son during the evacuation. Instead, within the hour, the Tunk Block Fire exploded down the draw, propelled by wind and dry fuels. It burned the Bests’ home as well as a number of 

others. The Tunk Block and Northstar Fires, part of the Okanogan Complex of fires, grew together to become the largest fire in Washington history.

Dennis, who is slightly hard of hearing after working for decades running lathes in sawmills, felt the fire before he heard it. It came like a flame out of a torch. As he left, fire, embers, heat and smoke whipped across the creek only yards from their home. With his route back to Highway 155 cutoff, he had to flee on a small dirt road up out of Haley Creek to Omak Lake/Columbia River Road. 

Though he was able to save some photos and keepsakes, he left behind a dog and cat, guns, chainsaws and other tools, restored trucks, clothing – more than can be listed here (25 years of those objects that represent life and family collected in a home) – and the house where they raised their two children, played with their grandchildren and created so many memories.

But he survived.

When he and Susan returned the next week they found their home and everything in it was lost. Only the foundation and custom rockwork remained, charred and cracking, and metal. Their old wood stove sat suddenly aged with rust in the rubble. 

The trucks around the home were destroyed. The fire burned so hot even the metal wrappings around the wheels had melted and ran like silvery lava downhill.  Most of the trees around their home were destroyed (though some were strangely still alive, as if the fire choose in strange discrimination which to burn and which to leave).

The damage seemed uncountable.

The emotions too were difficult.

But their dog was alive, waiting for their return, and perhaps that was an omen: Their life at Haley Creek would continue. They just needed to rebuild.

“We knew we were coming back,” said Susan. “Even if it was in a single-wide or whatever, we knew we were going to come back. We kind of wanted to rebuild. We wanted to rebuild because of our children. That’s why we bought the house originally, for our children to live there, to have it for themselves when we’re gone, always have a place to call their own. We just loved it.”

This month, Dennis and Susan Best will move back to Haley Creek into a home built largely by volunteers and faith-based organizations working with the Okanogan County Long Term Recovery Group, a non-profit organization formed after the Carlton Complex in 2014 and the Okanogan Complex in 2015 burned nearly 400 structures in the county.

“It’s amazing,” said Susan Best. “We thought we’d be gone even longer.”

Long term recovery

Since 2014, the Okanogan County Long Term Recovery Group has built 32 homes using over 158,000 hours of labor from 2,000 volunteers, saving over an estimated $3.2 million in labor costs.

The group received over $4.2 million in donations.

In a blog post in June 2017, FEMA Federal Coordinating Officer T.J. Durgan called the Okanogan County LTRG “a national model to help other rural communities recover from a disaster” and praised the organization for prioritizing the need to rebuild homes for displaced families who couldn’t afford to rebuild.

“We fully embrace the community approach to recovery in Washington,” wrote Durgan. “Neighbors help neighbors. Friends and family pitch in and lend a hand. Local, state, tribal and federal partners pull together. We work shoulder to shoulder alongside civic leaders, business owners, faith-based groups and volunteers.”

Generational assistance

The Bests were one of several families who found themselves uninsured when the Tunk Block started.

In Jan. 2015, the couple had finished their 25-year mortgage and let their insurance lapse as they shopped for a new option. They worked actively for new insurance, said Susan, but they were struggling to find good options for their log home that sat more than 10 miles from the nearest fire station: “The loan companies weren’t wanting to deal with us, and then the fire came,” said Susan. 

Still, after the fire, they planned to rebuild and begin again the mortgage repayment process.

“About a year ago, we were looking for a contractor, and we were going to do another home loan and start all over,” said Susan. “We found a contractor. We found a house plan. We were about ready to get a loan. We got the loan approved through the Colville Tribal Credit, and this group called us and asked for a meeting.”

The recovery group offered the Bests a two-bedroom home, and because they already had plans for a four-bedroom home that would allow them to house their children and grandchildren, the group agreed to allow the Bests to pay for any additional costs above that for the two-bedroom place.

So, instead of a new 25-year loan, Dennis and Susan dipped into their retirement for $30,000, and used another $17,000 donated directly to the Colville Tribes for recovery efforts to build in Haley Creek.

Just as the emotions were overwhelming and the damage seemed innumerable following the fire, the opportunity is immeasurable, perhaps even generational. After all, if they had rebuilt with a new mortgage, their children probably would have been left with repaying it, said Susan.

“It’s amazing,” said Susan.

On June 21, the Okanogan County LTRG will host a ribbon cutting and blessing at the home.

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