Swapping sage for sidewalks

Life in the city looks more appealing after wildland fires, floods destroy homes

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COLOCKUM — Phil and Cheri Rayburn expected to spend the rest of their lives in Chelan County's rural Colockum region in their cozy, creekside log cabin surrounded by an organic orchard and sage-covered hillsides.

Fire and flooding abruptly turned their 12-year romance with the region to fear last summer.

The Rayburns were one of three families who lost their homes in the July 27 Colockum Tarps Fire.

A torrential rainstorm pounded the fire-denuded hills some two weeks later, turning the usually docile Colockum Creek and normally dry canyon drainages into raging animals that disgorged layers of mud and boulders onto the Rayburns' and other homesites.

That was it for the Rayburns, both recent retirees, who chose not to rebuild and risk another pounding. They moved to town.

"We loved that place," Cheri said from the Wenatchee-area home they recently purchased. "Every day was like living in a bed and breakfast. The property has been totally destroyed."

"We just thought, 'We don't want the trauma,'" Phil said. "We lived in the city before we moved out there, so it wasn't a hard adaptation for us. Cheri and I both have very strong faith. It's helped us to accept things as they come."

The fire was enough for 30-year Colockum residents Dean and Kandae Laymance to reach the same decision.

"I'm not willing to rebuild at my retirement age and see it go up again," Kandae said. "It's very emotional, and that's too big a risk for me."

The Laymances are buying a home in East Wenatchee, but intend to fix up their fire-damaged property to use for recreation. It's up higher than the Rayburns' property, and wasn't damaged by flooding.

"We are going to go out there and reestablish our land and make it beautiful again," Kandae said. "We'll just go out there and enjoy it."

The third family who lost their home in the fire plans to rebuild in the Colockum. They declined to be interviewed for this story. A fourth family, whose home was badly burned but not destroyed, has repaired the damage and remodeled and are back home. They couldn't be reached to comment.

The resiliency of these rural residents doesn't surprise Sgt. Kent Sisson, head of emergency management for the Chelan County Sheriff's Office.

"People are very independent," he said. "Neighbors watch out for neighbors. Family watches out for family. People are pretty self sufficient."

Ignited by the improper wiring of a longtime area orchardist's irrigation pump, the fire spread quickly in hot, dry and windy conditions. It blackened 80,000 acres and burned many outbuildings, as well as two other unoccupied homes, before it spread into Kittitas County.

Experts say the hillsides, bare of vegetation, were especially vulnerable to the heavy rains, which caused such flooding that some area residents were forced to flee their homes.

The Rayburns were in Walla Walla when the fire broke out. A friend who was staying at their home to care for their golden retrievers, Harley and Sadie, and their cat, Love, managed to get the animals into the car and drive out of the area. Within a couple of hours, the flames raced down the hillside to devour the house.

The Laymances agreed to allow firefighters to stage equipment on their property. Firefighters told them with virtual certainty that their house would be protected.

To avoid the chaos of an active fire scene, the couple spent the night in a Wenatchee hotel. The next day, Sunday, they swung by the small Stemilt Hill church for services on their way home. They learned from other members of their small congregation that all might not be well at home.

They returned home to find everything burned except the steel girders of the foundation.

Both couples lavish praise on their friends and neighbors who helped them through.