A region still numb from the devastation of wildfires found itself in the throes of a new disaster Thursday — this time from flash flooding and mudslides over vast areas of the blackened countryside.
Some people whose homes survived the 256,000-acre Carlton Complex fires were devastated by damage from a lightning storm that spurred mud and debris flows.
North of Carlton, mudslides knocked a house off its foundation, pushed an occupied vehicle into Benson Creek, trapped a dozen vehicles between slides, and left a mound of dirt and debris five feet thick and 145 feet wide blocking Highway 153. Two slides closed a section of that highway between Twisp and Carlton, with a detour available.
Highway 20 between Twisp and Okanogan is closed, with no detours.
The state Department of Transportation has no estimate of when the highways will reopen.
In central Okanogan County, residents in the Chiliwist Valley near Malott were stranded overnight when nearly two miles of road was washed away. An alternate but very rough route through Davis Canyon was cleared of trees and debris this morning.
“It was freaky,” said Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers. “There was so much water, it was amazing,” he said.
Rogers said he’s not aware of anyone injured from the flooding.
A thunderstorm dumped 1.2 inches of rain in about an hour between 6 and 7 p.m. Thursday over the Carlton Fire area, said Joey Clevenger, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Spokane.
“The storm cell developed and then stayed stationary over those locations for quite awhile,” he said.
The potential for similarly wet storms continue through this evening, with the possibility of some areas getting a half inch or more of rain in 30 minutes, he said.
A flash-flood watch remains in effect for all of Chelan and Okanogan counties and western Douglas County.
Carlton Complex firefighters, who are doing mostly fireline repair work, are preparing for another onslaught, after a rough night at their camp Thursday.
Greg Heule said one crew member had a close call when a mudslide on Benson Creek Road swept him and his vehicle off the road and into the creek.
He said the crew member was in an SUV in a convoy of vehicles coming back to camp when he was swept into the creek, and traveled about 1,000 feet down the creek before the vehicle stopped in a pile of debris.
The crew member was mostly lucky that the vehicle stayed upright, at a 45-degree angle to the creek. “It could have turned out very differently had he not gotten caught on the debris,” Heule said.
At the fire camp, tents got blown away, equipment was ruined and electronic equipment was damaged.
“A lot of people slept in vehicles last night,” he said.
Local residents say they’re feeling disheartened.
“It’s like another nail in the coffin,” said Carlton General Store owner Jeff Lyman, adding, “It’s pretty bad down here right now.”
Lyman said the house on Highway 153 that was destroyed in the mudslide ended up in the living room of another home. “She said she just barely got out. They’re lucky to be alive,” he said.
Maggie Garrett, who lives on Benson Creek, described fences torn down, irrigation wheel lines pushed the length of three football fields and deep channels carved through driveways and backyards.
“It was literally like a river running through here,” she said. “And now, everything’s six inches under mud.”
Garrett said she spent Thursday night on the other side of the newly created river trying to convince her horses to stay on high ground. “I was hollering at them every time one of them would go down. I felt very helpless,” she said.
This morning, she was finding help getting them out before the next wave of this storm hits.
Rogers said with so much area scarred by fire, he imagines many other remote roads are flooded or covered in mud.
With another flash flood warning for later today, Rogers said people should stay off the roads, and hunker down at home unless water was flowing into their residence. “Never drive over running water,” he said. “You may be driving, and suddenly there’s no road.”
Michelle McNiel contributed to this report.
Reach K.C. Mehaffey at 509-997-2512 or email@example.com. Read her blog An Apple a Day or follow her on Twitter at @KCMehaffeyWW.