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Roslyn residents hope for the best as Jolly Mountain Fire rages

  • 4 min to read

ROSLYN, Wash. — Situated at the base of a ridge in the Cascade Mountains, the town of Roslyn is a small community of about 900 people with deep roots in popular cultural.

Tourists flock here in scores to visit where the hit 1990s television show “Northern Exposure” was filmed; and where more recently the Amazon TV series “The Man in the High Castle” — a show about what the U.S. would look like if the Axis powers had triumphed in World War II — was shot.

But perhaps now more than ever, even when sets for “Man in the High Castle” were strewn about the town, Roslyn looks and feels like a battleground.

It’s directly in the path of the Jolly Mountain Fire, one of two large wildfires burning in the region, and the firefighting presence is strong: National Guard troops in military fatigues patrol roadblocks on the city’s outskirts, convoys of firefighters drive main streets, and just a few miles down the road sits a city of tents housing roughly 800 personnel.

“The mood is tense here,” said Ron Lintz, a Roslyn resident who’s spent the better part of 39 years in the area. “It wakes you up in the middle of the night, because you know the fire could come down the ridge and surround us; it’s scary.”

Roslyn has been on Level 2 evacuation status — be packed and ready to leave — for close to a week with the fire growing each day. While the looming possibility of mandatory evacuation is causing anxiety, the community is showing resiliency.

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Makeshift signs thanking firefighters adorn buildings, lawns, trees and telephone poles. Motorists roll down their windows and shout praise at firefighters, while others insist on shaking their hands and thanking them for “protecting our homes.”

The fire has burned more than 26,000 acres mostly in the Wenatchee National Forest, making it among the most serious fires Kittitas County has ever seen. It’s not as large the 2013 Colockum Tarps Fire, which burned nearly 90,000 acres of remote wilderness east of Ellensburg. But Jill Beedle with Kittitas County’s emergency response team compared Jolly Mountain’s potential effect on people to the Taylor Bridge Fire, which destroyed 61 homes and damaged a number of other buildings in 2012.

No structures have been reported lost, but the fire has forced evacuations of hundreds of cabins and homes in the forest west of Roslyn. Protecting those remote and scattered homes stretches crews thin and makes it difficult to coordinate firefighting efforts.

“With Roslyn, you could just line up fire engines from east to west and defend the city that way,” Beedle said, “but to have to account for all the resources you’re dispersing to those (forest) homes makes fighting it that much harder.”

Evacuations also have proved challenging, Beedle said, since not all homes are clearly visible from roads or listed on maps, making them hard for law enforcement officers to find.

“I’ve had a few instances with this fire where people have called me and said, ‘My neighbor got notified (to evacuate) but I didn’t,’” she said.

Steve Bekkerus, a fire public information officer, said other obstacles include smoke, which makes it dangerous for helicopters and planes, and a markedly rugged terrain where 60 to 70 percent of the trees are dead from insects — compared to an average of 20 to 30 percent regionally.

Early on, officials decided to let the fire burn with limited containment efforts because the area was considered too dangerous for fire crews. Bekkerus said the decision was warranted, emphasizing the risk to firefighters wasn’t worth a small amount of progress they would have been able to make.

With the fire continuing to burn in remote and extremely rugged terrain, firefighters are constructing fire lines primarily in areas that can be safely accessed.

On one such fire line four miles west of Roslyn, patches of small flames burned on the ground between towering evergreens and the thick underbrush making up the rugged backwood country of northern Kittitas County.

The line was mostly quiet save for the crackling of flames inching toward the asphalt road where crews had cleared the underbrush to prevent the fire from jumping the road. Occasionally, a pop loud enough to suddenly turn the heads of firefighters broke the silence.

More ominous was the “whooshing” sound from deeper in the woods as entire trees exploded into flames.

Firefighters call it “torching,” and it’s aptly named: The sound the fire makes as it engulfs the crowns of trees is similar to a blowtorch.

Firefighters can appear suddenly out of the brume of smoke, standing tall and powerful with axes or other sharp tools in their hands.

On a cliff overlooking Lake Cle Elum, designated a safe zone where firefighters can escape if the fire becomes too dangerous, the smoke was so thick it was tough to differentiate between the sky and water. Light ash swirled gently in the air, the sun a perfect red circle in a sea of gray.

Nearby, a team of hotshots — a sort of special forces branch in the firefighting world — marched up a steep, winding road on their way to start controlled back burns, which eliminates fuel in areas considered liabilities as fires spread. A pack of media scrambled up the road after them in an effort to get rare shots of the elusive experts.

But their attempts were in vain. Even in full gear with torches and chain saws in hand, the hotshots outpaced the media with ease — adding credence to their reputation as elites.

Defeated, the reporters trekked back down the hill, as pillars of black smoke billowed from where the hotshots were beginning the back burn.

A few yards away, a firefighter creating defensible space around a house turned on a sprinkler and doused the home’s deck with water. Another public information officer with the Jolly Mountain Fire, Kale Casey, said the firefighter’s work showed how little actions help contain wildfires.

“Containment is like a puzzle,” he said. “It’s one little acre at a time, especially in a volatile and rowdy place like this.”

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