(OKANOGAN, Wash.) – It's been a long hot summer for the Okanogan County Sheriff's
The 33 commissioned officers in the department are busy in ordinary times policing a
county of more than
5,000 square miles with 120 miles of Canadian border and thousands of acres of forest
wilderness. Throw in
weeks of raging wildfires, and you have a department stretched to the absolute limit.
"People are putting in some awfully long weeks and days," Sheriff Michael Murray said.
Okanogan County is in north-central Washington, bordered by Canada on the north and
the Columbia River on
the south. Murray said that the county, about 100 miles from north to south, is about 70
percent forest but also
has large apple orchards.
Murray said that weeks of strain began with a relatively small wildfire that burned 3,000
acres on July 9,
immediately followed by a blaze that became known as the Thirty Mile Fire. Within days,
four young firefighters
had been killed, and sheriff's officers had to retrieve the bodies and investigate the
deaths along with the
cause and origin of the fires.
Officers also had to evacuate hikers, campers and fishermen from the Pasayten
Wilderness, a large tract of
federal land in the county. Murray said he begged and borrowed four helicopters and used
officers familiar with
the area to find people and instruct them on how to get out, using the choppers for those
physically unable to
make it out on their own.
More wildfires started in early August and were still going last week, although damped down
by rain. Hundreds of
people have been forced out of their homes, and the sheriff's department has had to seal
off the evacuated
areas to prevent looters from taking advantage of the situation.
In addition to the fires, the department has had two difficult missing persons cases this
summer. In one, a
woman and her 9-year-old daughter were caught by a flash flood in July, when a heavy rain
one small area. The woman was able to get the little girl out of the car and safe but was
swept away herself.
Searchers later found the vehicle but the woman is still missing.
In the other case, a man vanished after leaving his wife at the doctor. Murray said
investigators have found
signs of foul play and are treating the case as a homicide, although the body is still
Even in normal times, the sheriff's officers are stretched thin. There are 10 towns in the
county with their own
police departments, effectively doubling the number of officers in the area, and the
department also has about
40 non-commissioned employees who staff the jail, handle records and perform other
tasks. But the sheriff's
office is responsible for all unincorporated areas – more than half the county. Every year,
thousands of migrant
workers come to Okanogan County's apple orchards, living in camps that become
temporary towns – all of them
needing law enforcement. The Canadian border creates its own law enforcement needs
because of smuggling,
and the county, Murray said, has all the normal criminal problems of any area.
The thousands of firefighters and National Guard members brought in this summer have
been well behaved,
Murray said, encouraged by a U.S. Forest Service policy that a crew will be shipped home if
Murray said he discourages his officers from putting in more than 12 hours at a stretch, no
matter how much is
going on. He believes stress has also been reduced because his office has been involved in
whenever fires have approached inhabited areas.
"We've not felt out of control," he said.
And he has discovered that sometimes taking a little more time and trouble at the
beginning can save
aggravation later. When the evacuations started, officers sometimes tried to force people
to leave – something
they cannot be made to do if they are adults able to take care of themselves – and told
them that they would
not be able to return until the danger of fire was over. They quickly learned that taking five
or 10 minutes to
explain the evacuation and giving residents passes so that they could get back into the
area to retrieve
possessions or examine their homes made the process much easier for both sides.