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News / Northwest

‘I don’t want to die in this’: Three months later, residents reflect on the Elk fire’s destruction

By Garrett Cabeza, The Spokesman-Review
Published: November 26, 2023, 6:02am

SPOKANE — Flames raged on either side of the road, scorching trees and sending embers into the smoke-filled air.

The flying debris and thick smoke obscured Spokane County Sheriff’s Deputy Brittan Morgan’s vision as he raced down the road shouting expletives, his body camera footage shows.

“I don’t want to die in this,” he yelled.

Morgan and Deputy John Nave, who was driving in front of him, were helping a resident evacuate when they eventually broke through the tunnel of flames to safety.

It was the early evening of Aug. 18, and the devastation of what would be called the Oregon Road fire had begun.

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The fire burned nearly 11,000 acres, destroyed 126 homes and killed 49-year-old Alex Brown.

Many others could have died.

Even Morgan could be heard telling Nave he thought they almost died. The sheriff’s office titled Morgan’s body cam footage, “Driving Through Hell on Earth.”

After the frightening drive, Morgan continued to help others who were distraught and stop them from trying to go into the life-threatening fire he narrowly escaped.

The video shows a person who refused to leave with Morgan emerging from the fire-ravaged area in his vehicle, according to the sheriff’s office.

“I was so worried about you,” Morgan told the man, who pulled up to talk with Morgan. “Are you OK?”

Morgan persuaded another man not to retrieve his semitruck in the fire.

“I don’t want you to die,” Morgan told the man, placing his hands on the man’s shoulders.

As they spoke, a woman pulled up in a car.

“My dad’s back there,” she said frantically. “I can’t get him out.”

The sheriff’s office later confirmed the woman’s father escaped the fire unharmed.

Three months later, the damage is all around. Charred trees and metal rubble from homes and cars dominate much of the landscape.

But signs of hope are evident. The debris on some properties has been cleared giving way as some begin to rebuild shops and homes.

David and Lydia Gardiner, a married couple of 53 years, saved their North Jackson Road home, but saw much of their property destroyed.

David said the fire caused about $1.4 million in damage after it destroyed their shop, trailers, garden shed, greenhouse, barns, two classic cars, three airplanes that he restored and flew, a boat, snowmobiles, fencing and more.

They were at the Pend Oreille County Fair in Cusick when they received evacuation notices on their phones, so they jumped in their car and headed home. They rescued their cattle, horses and pigs, but lost five chickens and a cow.

David said he and one of their sons gathered belongings when the fire engulfed their shop.

“The shop is 120 yards away and, I mean, it was already almost unbearable heat,” David said.

The two left the property, and about 5 miles down the road, David looked at his son and said they needed to return.

“Something said, ‘Go back,’ “ he said.

When they returned home, the blaze had traveled past the house, but their deck was on fire. David said they extinguished the flames, which had only burned a few deck boards and some of the wooden railing.

“Had we not come back, the house would have been gone,” David said.

Still, the intense heat damaged the roof and windows.

David has rebuilt some of the destroyed items, like a chicken coop and garden shed. But larger projects, like new barns and a shop, have to wait. He said they are “fighting tooth and nail” with their insurance company to cover their losses. So far, the couple has received about $125,000.

“It wouldn’t have been bad if we wouldn’t have had to argue and fight with insurance,” David said.

Nearby, the fire destroyed Jerry and Patricia Thomas’ house, forcing the married couple of 44 years to rent a mobile home in Deer Park.

“You just wake up and you think, ‘Gee, I had all this and now I have nothing,’ “ Patricia said.

The couple was able to secure their vehicles, two boats, paintings and important documents from the fire. Jerry said he was sad that they lost so much family history in the flames, adding that he no longer has photos of his late brothers and parents.

“We were supposed to be keepers of all the history of the house, and I just feel like I’ve failed,” he said.

Jerry said he believes their insurance company will help cover the costs of their new home and items. They won’t be able to start rebuilding until late spring at the earliest, meaning their home would not be completed until 2025.

That could be a problem, because Patricia said the couple expects their insurance to pay their Deer Park rent for only one year, which would be until September.

“We’re really, really concerned about going through next winter,” Jerry said.

Before the fire, the retired couple planned to travel the country in a camper.

“That’s not going to happen,” Patricia said.

Sam Colvin also plans to rebuild after his Frideger Road home, garage and shop were leveled. Luckily, the retired sawmill mechanic’s primary residence is in Western Washington.

“It was a beautiful place,” Colvin said.

Colvin said he visited the Elk home at least once a month before the fire, and he and his wife planned to move there permanently. Several vehicles inside the shop, including two boats and a motor home, were destroyed.

He said his Elk neighbor texted him about the fire when it swept through.

Colvin drove across the state three days later to take in the damage. He said he was in awe when he first saw his property in ruins.

“It incinerated everything,” he said. “Unless it was metal, you didn’t know what it was … My 12-foot aluminum boats, they were just a big puddle.”

The rubble has been removed from the property, and he plans to clear the 10 acres of burnt trees. He hopes to start building in the spring and expects his insurance to cover the costs.

He spent the last month in a trailer on the property, running a generator and propane heaters as he deals with the aftermath.

“I’m ready to go home,” Colvin said.

Several individuals and groups, including Country Church of the Open Bible outside Elk, have aided in recovery efforts.

Jose Ng, pastor at the church, said he opened his church’s doors to people who needed a place to stay after the fire, which started while he and friends were celebrating his wife’s birthday.

Ng, who has called the Elk community home for nearly 40 years, said he was almost in shock when the fire started.

“You didn’t know what to think, and you just kind of reacted on, ‘OK, well, let’s help people get through today and then we’ll get through tomorrow,’ “ he said.

The church provided food and offered people donated clothes, toiletries, supplies and gift cards.

“We almost looked like a Goodwill here by Monday morning,” Ng said, referring to Aug. 21, three days after the fire.

The church partnered with Elk Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 5924, North County Food Pantry and New Hope Resource Center, Elk Strong and others to help victims.

“It’s really become quite a community effort to help people,” he said.

Since the end of August, the church has been working with Spokane County to get a plan approved that would allow people to live in large metal cargo containers to keep warm in the winter.

“Our biggest push is really trying to help people get through this winter without freezing,” Ng said. “That seems to be our biggest priority.”

Ng said those plans have since been approved, and the Spokane Regional Long Term Recovery Group will fund the project.

He said the goal is to provide 10 containers initially but additional funding is needed to build more. Ng said people who want to donate can visit the church’s website at ccob.life or call the church at (509) 292-8770.

The cargo containers will be outfitted so families can cook and shower.

Ng said he hopes the container idea serves as a blueprint for temporary tiny homes when the next wildfire sweeps into Spokane County or elsewhere.

“The whole goal of this is to make sure that Spokane County has something on the bookshelf that they can take off next year when the fires roll through anywhere in Washington state here, or maybe even Idaho and Oregon,” he said.

Ng said the fire’s aftermath created monumental and overwhelming challenges as church leaders did everything possible to help their neighbors.

“But then you realize this is what the church is for,” he said. “This is what a community is for. We’re supposed to be here to help each other get through difficult times … We got to continue to bring hope to people, to encourage them to not give up.”

Ng said some members of the church, including Renee Claussen, lost their homes.

Renee, her husband, Chad, and five of their children were on vacation in Lincoln City, Oregon, when the fire broke out. One of their children was house sitting at their Elk home.

Renee said they started driving home that night and realized their house had been destroyed on their way back.

“That was pretty devastating, but we had to keep driving,” she said.

The family has been staying with relatives in Spokane and plans to rebuild on their Elk property starting this spring at the latest.

She said they thank God their daughter was safe during the fire and that their animals lived, but moving forward on a rebuild has been a nightmare.

“It’s a process,” Renee said. “It’s been interesting.”

Renee said U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers visited the church about one month after the fire.

She said the congresswoman, who represents Eastern Washington, prayed with her family. Claussen called the act the “most amazing experience for me and my husband.”

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“It was a cool, moving experience for us,” she said.

Her church has provided meals, clothes and other items to her and her family.

“The community has just been super amazing,” she said.