Wildfires can’t break spirit of elderly residents

Wildfires rage through the forests that surround Faller’s cozy acreage in remote Ferry County, filling the house with smoke and ash. The five fires that have already ravaged nearly 430 square miles in the county likely won’t reach his land near Curlew Lake, though for a time Faller and his wife Jane were on a “be ready” evacuation notice.

Yet the devastation, the unknown, is causing stress for both Faller and Jane,pelle di serraggio his wife of 58 years.

“This year is just building on us,” said Faller, 79, covering his head where the pain emanates above his left eye. “Psychologically.”

Jane Faller reiterates the statement later, in a separate conversation. “It’s just one thing after another,” she said in a tired voice.

The tension is getting to everyone in fire stricken areas of north central Washington, as the worst fire season in state history continues despite recent cool weather and showers. The hardship is especially difficult for the elderly and even worse for those with medical concerns.

“Our clients over in the evacuation center (in Colville) already want to come home,” Cherie Gorton, manager of Rural Resources Community Action, said Wednesday. “They want to be back in their little places whether they burn or not.” The nonprofit agency helps elderly and disabled residents of Ferry, Lincoln, Pend Oreille and Stevens counties.

Of the 60 people identified on Gorton’s “vulnerable” list in Ferry County scribbled on a spiral notebook in her purse only four agreed last week to let the Rural Resources van transport them over Sherman Pass to the shelter at a church in Colville. Two of them drove themselves.

Gary Sorbo was one of those who refused. He sat last week on the patio of his subsidized senior housing complex and chain smoked cheap cigarettes with his two older brothers. In the midst of an impromptu cocktail hour, the group waved to fire crews and law enforcement as they passed, joking about relocating to the casino in Chewelah if the fire came over the hill.

There’s no reason to lose your sense of humor in times of disaster, they agreed.

(Cherie Gorton, of Rural Resources, stands with elderly brothers, from left, Gary, Paul and Dennis Sorbo who refused to evacuate their low income senior housing apartment in Republic, Wash. Photo: Tyler Tjomsland)

Gorton, wearing a face mask, laughed and shook her head. Earlier in the day she had helped evacuate Gary Sorbo’s twin sister. She knows it’s no use forcing the feisty elders of Ferry County, hardy individuals who are used to living in the remote valley along the Canadian border.

She has worked closely with elderly and disabled residents during the fires. She passed out masks and made house calls. She encouraged people with health and mobility issues to evacuate even though Republic was never on a mandatory evacuation order. Her tone got more persistent Friday with predictions of 36 hours of high winds and the sheriff encouraging people to leave temporarily. But when she encounters folks like the Sorbo brothers, she understands.

“A lot of people don’t have insurance,” she said. “They build their own places and they have low incomes. They aren’t leaving.”

The Ferry County Public Hospital District transported 15 patients and long term care residents by ambulance to either Colville or Spokane’s Deaconess Hospital and closed everything except the emergency room. Tuesday the hospital fully reopened and CEO Brenda Parnell was coordinating the return of patients to Republic.

The evacuation news made no difference to the Fallers. They weren’t leaving anyway, unless they could see flames. Even then, they really didn’t have a plan. Maybe head for Canada; the border was prepared to accept dogs without health certificates.

Faller is now a hospice patient, with morphine pills. Before he takes a dose, he’s adamant he can defend his house if needed. He has hoses and a tractor. Jane looks wide eyed in disbelief. An hour later, after the morphine, Faller is less interested in defense and fires.

Out of town friends called, as did their son who had recently visited from North Carolina, expressing concern, wanting to know why they hadn’t left. They offered houses and hotel rooms. Bob Faller swore in his gruff, gravelly New York accent and waived his hand.

“The fire ain’t going to get us,” he said.

A couple of days later, he was up, outside helping Jane Faller fill containers with water in case of an electrical outage. They bicker, like old lovers do.

Faller is a lot more worried about dying and leaving Jane alone in the woods than he is about forest fires.

That night, the couple stood on the deck looking for stars through the smoke. The sky was lighter than it had been in days. Faller pointed, seeing stars, at least in his mind. Then he sighed deeply and wrapped his thin arm around his wife.

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