Blaze alters mountain life

BY P.J. HELLER | Tonasket, WA | September 8, 2000

Not because they could lose their homes and possessions or even face personal danger. Rather, a fire on

the mountain a few miles from Tonasket would be like sending up smoke signals reminding townspeople

in the valley of their existence on the mountain.

For the most part, the town generally ignored the counterculture and alternative lifestyle groups that had

made their way to the mountain. And the people on the mountain -- aging hippies, Vietnam vets,

back-to-nature types, fugitives, those who simply mistrust the government, and those who want to escape

from the rest of the world for one reason or another -- tended to pretty much mind their own business.

"With the personality of the mountain, everybody stays to themselves more or less," explains resident

Cleve Henderson, 52, who says he bought his "dirt" in 1978. "You don't just run around and socialize

everywhere because most people don't want you driving in.

"There's a lot of counterculture people up there and we don't really want any interference from the

building inspector or the county sheriff or whoever wants to come in and tell us what to do," adds

Henderson, who lost everything in the fire. "We don't want to hear it."

Some Mt. Hull residents would venture into town for supplies or to visit the Community Cultural Center

for dances or to sell their wares at a craft fair. The mountain, however, wasn't a place where non-residents

were likely to venture. Wandering up to a house to look around or to ask directions could get you run off

the property at gunpoint.

While homes in Tonasket are of traditional design, those on Mt. Hull range from Two Eagles' teepee, in

which he lived year-round, to a "house" constructed of 70 wooden pallets. Cabins and trailers are spread

around the mountain. Many lack electricity, although some owners would run generators for power.

Running water was a luxury that many did not enjoy. A communal well might serve several people in an


The townspeople and the mountain people were worlds apart. Their worlds, however, collided this

summer when a wildfire sparked by lightning swept the mountain.

That collision has presented a unique opportunity for the two sides to get to know one another a little

better. Faith-based leaders under the umbrella of the North Okanogan Ministerial Association (NOMA)

have been in the forefront of that effort.

It's not going to be easy.

"I'm not really asking for much right now," says 27-year-old Ken Worrell, who was living on Mt. Hull with

his wife and 11-month-old daughter when the fire struck, destroying their cabin and all of their


"I don't really need nothing," Worrell said. "I can live in the woods with pretty much nothing. I'm a


Even so, Worrell was one of a handful of people who applied for low-interest Small Business

Administration loans on the first day they were offered.

"I'm not trying to take too much right now because there's a lot of people that need a lot," he said.

Others, like Henderson, won't seek government assistance.

"I'm not confident in my income enough to pay back a loan," he confessed. "I do construction work. I'm

just self-employed. Sometimes I make a living, sometimes I don't. But I don't really need another IOU to

pay back a bill, even if it is a low-interest thing."

Hallie Burchinal, who moved to the mountain in June with her partner Michael and three children, said

they, too, would not qualify for an SBA loan since Michael recently was laid off from work in the

economically depressed town.

The family, which had rented a house on Mt. Hull until the fire drove them out, is now living in a bus and a

tent on the mountain. Burchinal, who works at a food co-op in town, fills up water jugs at the co-op and

hauls them back up the mountain.

She still hopes to be able to buy a piece of land and says they're going to build a temporary emergency

structure for the winter.

"It's hard," she says of life on the mountain. "We're dirty all the time."

Like most of the people on the mountain, she has no intention of going somewhere else.

"Definitely," she says when asked if she plans to stay. "It's a great community of people. It's just gorgeous

up there."

"I'm just going to stick with it," adds Worrell, who admits that "there's a lot of things I don't like about it."

Among them are the rough and dusty gravel roads in some areas and the nearly impassable dirt roads in

others, particularly the area known as the Saddle.

"It wears you down," admits Henderson. "Of all the roads that I've ever driven and commuted on, that is

the worst, the most dangerous and the most poorly maintained road that I've ever been on."

But, Worrell says quickly, "nobody gets harassed up there. You can pretty much do whatever you want

without a big hassle. It's peaceful up there. It's real peaceful."

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