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Residents Still In Shock Over Western Washington Fire That Destroyed 5 Homes

Firefighters are still on the scene of a quick-moving blaze that burned five homes in rural Mason County, Washington, on Friday. The destruction is evidence of dry conditions even on the west side of the Cascades.

Residents are just beginning to take stock of what they lost. Kris Fite sifted through the remains of the triple-wide trailer he shared with his sister, her three kids and their grandfather. He emerged with a charred book that disintegrated in his hands as he opened it.

“You can see the pages, but the words have been erased from the pages,” Fite said. “It’s weird. It’s eerie.”

Next, Fite found the remnants of his computer. It held photos of his two children going back to when they were infants.

“I remember what they looked like, so that’s good enough, I guess,” he said.

As Fite surveyed the destruction, he admitted to still being in shock.

“It’s like you have to force yourself to just accept it because there’s nothing here,” he said.

To cope, Fite stole away a few minutes here and there to play his guitar -- which was in his truck and didn’t burn in the fire. He said it was “good therapy.”

Twenty-four minutes of desperation

The fire burned so hot the aluminum siding on the mobile home melted into blobs. It also burned three cars. Fite’s sister and her kids were gone when the fire broke out late Friday afternoon. But he was there and tried desperately to save the place.

“Everywhere you see dirt in the field, I was digging trying to stop the fire coming this way,” Fite said.

He also used a hose until the power went out and the pump stopped working. He was sure firefighters would arrive and save the day.

“I just kept waiting to see the flashing red lights, savior come through the smoke,” Fite recalled.

But that never happened. According to fire officials, it took the first volunteer crew 24 minutes to arrive. Finally, Fite had to give up, grab what he could and flee.

“Just armloads of stuff,” he said. “I don’t even know what I ended up grabbing in the end.”

'I’ve never seen it this dry'

The fire didn’t stop at Fite’s house. The fire jumped across a single-lane road, moved into some pasture and grassland and then headed for the trees. That’s where firefighters were finally able to stop it, but not before it had burned about 100 acres and destroyed five homes.

“It moved incredibly fast,” said the Washington’s Department of Natural Resources’ Dave Gufler, the incident commander for the fire. He said a wildfire like this that destroys homes in western Washington is rare.

“I’ve lived around here all my life and I’ve never seen it this dry,” Gufler said.

The fire started on Byron Smith’s property.

“I was sitting in my house and for some untold reason I looked out my window and saw this little puff of smoke,” Smith said.

He yelled fire to his son and ran out to try to put it out. But it was windy and he didn’t have much water pressure. The flames quickly consumed two mobile homes and a shop before spreading to his mother’s nearby house. And then headed for the neighbors.

'Over 100 years of history up in smoke'

“I feel terrible,” Smith said. “I wished I could have done more. I wished I could do more for the people that lost so much more than me.”

The cause of the fire is still under investigation. And Smith doesn’t want to speculate. But he’s worried about the liability he could face. Later, his 90-year-old mother Dolores Murphy and her husband Robert returned to see the charred remains of their mobile home. They lost all of their family photos going back several generations.

“All gone, everyone,” Dolores said. “I had all my family, my mom dad, all my kids.”

“Over a hundred years of history went up in smoke,” Robert added.

There was a moment when the fire was headed toward her house, that Smith thought Dolores might be trapped inside. It turns out she was on an errand, but just the thought makes him suddenly emotional.

“I’m glad nobody lost their life,” Smith said. “People lost material things, but these people are still alive.”

With that, the family walked hand-in-hand through the charred remains—taking stock of what’s been lost and what matters most.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."