On Aug. 18, when the Grizzly Bear Complex fire was estimated at 2,000 acres and reportedly mostly near Dayton, Wash., in Columbia County, two river rafts left Minam headed for Troy.
River guide, Grant Richie, piloted one. He and his three sons and niece (ages 13-17) were planning on doing a river cleanup trip. Visitors to the area, Harry Stewart of Vancouver and his 21-year-old son and another friend, piloted the other raft. The Stewart party was expecting a leisurely five-day float.
As usual, the rafting groups arranged to have their vehicles driven down to Troy by Lottie Richie. Then, they floated away, out of contact with the rest of the world.
That’s what they came for, but as they enjoyed the pristine wilderness, crystal water, and the absence of ringing cell phones, a little fire in Columbia County was heating up. By evening it had grown to 9.000 acres, but was still reported as “in Columbia County.” In 24 hours the Forest Service was reporting that “several fires burned together and made a strong six-mile push to the south down Grizzly Bear Ridge, across the Oregon/Washington border and into the Wenaha River drainage.” Troy, Eden Bench and Grouse Flats residents were hearing from forest and county officials.
The fire had become a complex, it had a new name, and it was roaring toward Troy. The Grizzly Bear Complex fire was about to get really, really dangerous.
But no one on the river knew this.
“It took Grant and the kids three days and two nights to float to Troy,” said Lottie Richie. “I shuttled a rig (vehicle) on Thursday. In that couple of days’ time frame the Grizzly Bear Complex went from 2,000 acres to 40,000 acres.”
She left Minam early in the morning on Thursday, and barely made the vehicle delivery before roadblocks went up.
At that point, Richie said, she called the county sheriff and the fire manager and let them know that rafters were on the river. “The wind direction was in our favor at the time,” Richie said. “But as the person who has people on the river, I felt it was my duty to call and let officials know.”
Grant made Troy on Thursday and pulled out at Powwatka Bridge (Wildcat Bridge) at about 3 p.m. Up until he came out of the river at Troy it was not bad. But just as they came out, Grant said, “We saw a lot of black smoke,” said Grant Richie. “When we got out at Troy a 20-to 30-mile wind came up and I’ve never seen a black cloud come up so fast. As we drove out it was glowing red. It was pretty scary looking.”
Harry Stewart and his party were still floating.
“We saw lots of wildlife and had a great time,” he said, “but then the smoke was billowing on the ridges and we could hear the copters coming in Thursday night. That’s when we really started to take note”
But there was nothing to do but keep floating down to Troy and watching the sky. The group felt pretty safe on the water, it was the landing that worried them.
“We pulled out Saturday afternoon right in Troy under the bridge, right in the middle of the fire camps,” Stewart said. “There were lots of fire trucks there when we pulled out.
“They all seemed unconcerned about us and chatted with us but we decided it was a good time to beat feet. The whole town was trying to be burnt down.”
The Stewart party made it out safely, and even saw some bears along the way, but it was an unexpected adventure and caused concern all around.
Now, says Richie, “No one is getting on the river. The Bureau of Land Management issued a very strict advisory that if you enter the river you may not be able to get off the water. It’s not a closure, but I won’t allow people to go into the water here (at Minam).”