Wind blows, fire burns, rain falls…

“A hero is someone who runs into a burning building, when everyone else is running out.”

Last Thursday was a scary day. Around noon a brush fire started about a mile from our home. We didn’t learn about the fire until about 1:30 pm when our power went out. We live in a very wind prone area and that day we had sustained winds of 45 mph, with gusts up to 80 mph. The fire started near a neighborhood, then moved past one of the little lakes in our area. It spread very quickly, jumped the highway and was burning on both sides of the road. At first, it was burning toward our neighborhood, but then the wind shifted and it started going north-west. 

Around 2:00 pm, we learned that our children’s elementary school had been evacuated and they had been taken to the evacuation center at a high school in the city to the north of us (which is in the opposite direction from our home). They were being held until a parent could could pick them up. Unfortunately, the fire was between us and them and the highway was closed all the way there. We had to take an alternate route, heading in the wrong direction, and go all the way around and up through the mountains. This trip should take an hour (one-way), it didn’t. When we got to the summit, traffic was completely stopped. Bumper-to-bumper, stop-and-go traffic all the way down. The road we were on twists around the mountains, so you can see the road ahead and it was just a huge line of cars. I called the school where they were and the wonderful assistant principal answered the phone. She said that she would let them know that we were on the way.

As we were making our way through the mountains, we could see the fire spreading north and into town. The fire traveled faster than we did, and when we arrived in town, it was already there. It actually beat us there. It was a terrible sight. The wind was pushing it fast and, with the rugged terrain, it was hard for the firefighters to get ahead of it.

It took us two and a half hours to get to the kids. We were worried that they would be scared. This was the first time they’ve ever been through something like this.  When we arrived, they were fine and not worried at all. When they described the evacuation, I was even more surprised that they weren’t scared. They told us that when they were led outside to get on the buses, the smoke around the school was very heavy. They saw each other get on different buses. I had, for some reason, assumed that they had gotten on a bus together. They said that they knew they would find each other when they arrived at the evacuation center, so they were fine. We were really proud of them.

We made our way back home, taking the same roundabout way. It took less time to drive home, but we had to stop at several checkpoints to show ID and prove we lived in the area. That was fine with us. We appreciate the hardworking emergency personnel that were keeping the residents and their homes safe. Our 20 year-old son, who lives on his own in town, called to check on us. The news reports were a little confusing and he wanted to see if we had to evacuate and let us know that we could stay with him if we needed to.

When we arrived home, our power was still out. This meant no water (or toilet) since we are on a well, and no pellet stove to keep us warm. We made due. We pulled out the lanterns, battery operated candles and a radio. We also have an emergency radio/light that works off of a hand crank, but we ended up not needing it. We put on more clothes and sweatshirts. We made sandwiches for dinner. We played Clue by candle light. We were just happy to be safe and together at home. 

Some people were not so lucky. As the fire moved north, neighborhood after neighborhood was evacuated. We live in a rural area where people have livestock and horses. The residents were trying to get their horses evacuated, but a lot of people have three or more horses and only one trailer. People who had been in town when the fire started couldn’t get home to grab belongings or save their pets. 10,000 people were evacuated. 

The hurricane force winds were blowing so hard and fast, it’s a miracle that there weren’t any firefighters injured or lost. We followed the news on the radio and the internet using our smart phones. We heard people telling their stories. Some asked for help finding a lost pet or even their horses. Some talked about how, as they were trying to escape, their neighbors homes were going up in flames and they had no idea about their own homes. It was so sad. It’s hard to be thankful that the wind went north-west instead of north-east, when you know that it means that someone else’s home was in it’s path. 

Photo:Chuck Buchheit

It started to drizzle and we were all hoping for rain and snow.

The next morning, school was closed. The fire had burned several homes very close to the school. We learned that the school was intact, but there was smoke damage. Later in the morning, our power came back on. The only damage we had sustained was a blown down section of wood fence. We listened to news reports. It had snowed higher up and lightly rained down in the lower elevations, both of which helped the firefighters gain more control. The fire was 65% contained. The highway was still closed. The entire area was on lock down. The fire was still burning in areas and they were trying to get it completely contained. It started raining and it rained all day. 

On Saturday, they opened the highway and the road that connects us to it. We drove into town to run errands. The burned areas took my breath away. Beautiful wild areas were gone. Blackened soil was all that remained. As we drove further, we saw areas where the fire had burned all the way up and around homes. But, the homes themselves were spared by the firefighters hard work. It was an amazing sight to see. We saw this same thing over and over again. You could tell just by looking that the firefighters stood their ground and fought for every home.

In the end, one life and 29 homes (and everything in them) were lost. People lost dogs, cats and horses. 3200 acres burned. The one family lost their beloved grandmother, her home, their home, three horses and everything except the clothes on their backs. It’s terrible. But, it’s amazing that more lives and homes were not lost. This fast moving fire could have done so much more damage, had it not been for those heroes who stood their ground.

I’d like to thank the teachers and staff at my children’s school for keeping them safe; the bus drivers for getting them safely evacuated; the teachers and staff at the high school for taking care of them after they were evacuated; and the firefighters, emergency personnel, the Forest Service personnel, the National Guard, the police and the sheriff’s departments for going above and beyond the call of duty. I wish I could buy every one of you a beer.

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