Unassuming Heroes: Wildland Firefighters

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Firefighters kept the blaze from reaching the town of Twisp. Community Covenant Church, pictured here, is safe thanks to their efforts. (photo, courtesy of The Seattle Times)

When we moved to the Methow Valley in North Central Washington almost 20 years ago, my husband Randy and I were naive about the risks of wildfires. We purchased some property in a high risk fire area, not thinking about the implications of building a home in the forest. We later sold that property so we could be located closer to town–in retrospect, a wise decision from a fire safety perspective.

In the years since we came here, we’ve experienced a number of wildfires. Usually, fires have burned in the wilderness, miles away from residences. We’ve witnessed spectacular mushroom-cloud smoke plumes and have been inconvenienced by smoky air. In 2001 the Thirtymile Fire impacted our community when four young wildland firefighters lost their lives. The reality of how dangerous these fires can be and how quickly they can explode hit us hard. Then last summer, we experienced the Carlton Complex Fire, the largest in Washington state history until this year. The fire decimated 250,000 acres and burned more than 350 homes. Our friends and neighbors are still recovering from that trauma.

We’ve all been on edge this summer with the extreme drought conditions and high temperatures we’ve had since June. A few weeks ago, fires erupted in the resort community of Chelan, an hour away from the Methow Valley.  Many homes were lost. Then last week, on what seemed like a normal Wednesday, sirens sounded about 12:30 p.m. The radio reported a fire had broken out a few miles outside of Twisp, a town 10 miles south of where we live. My heart froze. No longer could we be in denial about the destructive potential of these fires.

By 5 o’clock, both towns of Twisp and Winthrop had received evacuation orders. A line of cars traveled the only road out of the valley. A large fire-filled cloud grew to enormous proportions on a nearby ridge. I raced home from work, wishing I’d packed our evacuation box the night before like I’d told myself to. I should be ready, just in case…

The “just in case” was happening. Fortunately, I’d made a detailed evacuation checklist last year. It was helpful and calming to refer to it as I ran around the house gathering important papers, photo albums, pictures off walls, clothes, toiletries, Kosmo’s dog food and supplies–and Kosmo! When you survey the contents of your home, you realize you can’t take much–only a few things. Plus you don’t know if you have much time. Do you have the luxury of deciding should I take the jeans or shorts? What jacket should I take? And shoes? Don’t forget to wear them out the door! Looking back now from a safer perspective, I can better evaluate our evacuation process. I realize I forgot important things and took others that didn’t even make sense.

In the end, you realize the stuff doesn’t matter. Of course, it’s a huge loss for those whose homes have burned, a loss that shouldn’t be minimized. But the unfathomable pain that overshadows any material loss is the deaths of three young firefighters who became trapped on Wednesday afternoon in the extreme fire conditions. A fourth firefighter remains in critical condition at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. We heard the tragic news as we evacuated. We are heartbroken with the rest of our community. And grateful beyond words for the bravery of firefighters, thousands of them, who put their lives on the line to protect us, our homes, and communities. As a group, they’re quite unassuming. They don’t think of themselves as heroes. One firefighter told me he was just doing his job, it wasn’t a big deal.

Oh, but it’s a very big deal for us. Without the vigilance and expertise of those who know how to fight these massive fires from the air and on the ground, our towns could have burned. Whether or not they realize it, these men and women are our heroes. A huge thank you hardly seems enough to express the gratitude that overflows in our hearts.

 

God’s Extravagant Love

Before Christmas, my boss and his wife treated my co-workers and me  to an afternoonExtravagant_0 of extravagance. Each of us was pampered with a massage, facial and manicure. As I lay on the massage table having the yummiest-smelling creams applied to my face, I suddenly felt overcome with emotion. This is pure extravagance, I thought. Something we as women don’t often treat ourselves to–especially all in one afternoon! Tears welled up and one escaped down my cheek. I hoped the aesthetician hadn’t noticed. It wasn’t just the spa treatments that got me teary, but  reflecting on God’s extravagant love.

After the Firestorm: Finding Out What Matters Most

The view from our house on July 17, 2014

I’ve never been so happy to turn a calendar page as I was at the end of August. I flipped the page from August to September, breathing a guarded sigh of relief. Our world has been rocked by the firestorm that blew up on July 17. During the summer and early fall, wildfires are part of life here in hot, dry north central Washington. We’ve seen the mushroom-cloud smoke plumes that tower skyward. We’ve witnessed hillsides burning in the distance. The Thirtymile Fire in 2001 seemed relatively insignificant until it raged out-of-control, killing four young firefighters. I remember the somber gathering held at our local high school gym where we paid our respects. This heartbreaking tragedy  caused the forest service to re-evaluate firefighting protocols.

But this year, the Carlton Complex Fire became the largest fire in Washington state history, burning more than 250,000 acres. Long-time residents say they’ve never seen anything like it. Unlike other fires, this one destroyed homes–more than 300 at last count. These are friends and neighbors who have lost everything. I can’t imagine where you begin to start over. The fire, ignited by a lightning strike near Carlton, traveled more than 25 miles in less than 8 hours to burn hundreds of homes near Pateros. People barely had time to evacuate. It’s nothing short of a miracle that no lives were lost that night and in the following days and weeks.

We were without power and water for 10 days in the area where I live. Others “camped” without electricity for almost 3 weeks. Everyone has been affected by the stress of living on high alert–not knowing if and when you’ll have to evacuate or if a new fire will be ignited by lightning or something as random as a tire rim from a flat tire creating sparks. And if the fires weren’t bad enough, mudslides caused by heavy rain and flash flooding several weeks later, washed out roads and destroyed more homes. It’s hard to wrap my mind around the devastation.

Yet in the midst of  disaster, you can’t help but notice the bright spots. I think of the hardworking heroes who have given so much to our communities…the firefighters who relentlessly dug fire lines in 100 degree weather, the local PUD joined by other utility companies who worked 16-hour days to get the power on, Red Cross volunteers who came to lend a hand or a shoulder to cry on. Community centers and schools were transformed into shelters staffed by volunteers. Almost immediately, donations of supplies poured in. A statement said they couldn’t accept any more donations. There simply wasn’t room.

A benefit, “Blues for the Burn,” was sponsored by the organizers of the popular summer Rhythm & Blues Festival. More than 400 people enjoyed an evening of music and dancing. Many came from out-of-town, wanting to support the beautiful Methow Valley and those who have lost so much. All proceeds went to our local food bank/charitable organization, “The Cove,” who will distribute the funds. I’m amazed and moved by the generosity of our community.

In September, I had the privilege of helping at a fire relief clothing event sponsored by The Heart of CAbi Foundation and Independent CAbi Consultants. More than 90 women who had lost all their personal clothing in the fires or mudslides came to “shop” for brand new designer clothing–except they didn’t need any shopping dollars. CAbi, a clothing company, donated 1,000 items of clothing. Each woman who attended went home with at least 10 free new outfits. I stood by to offer coffee, muffins, scones, and sandwiches–but most important, I listened to their stories of loss, gave hugs, and even helped dry some tears. 

It seems like disasters, whether natural events, or tragedies like 9/11, tend to draw people together. Suddenly we’re shoulder-to-shoulder, ready to help and encourage others wherever we can. Even though I pray we never have another summer like this one, I’m grateful for the overwhelming support we’ve received–and for this reminder:

The things that matter the most in this world, they can never be held in our hand. –Gloria Gaither
  
I’ve had a first-hand glimpse of this through those in our community who are bravely moving forward after losing so much.
       
      

Let Freedom Never Be Forgotten


In the late 1970s, Randy and I and our two sons spent three years stationed on Okinawa, Japan with the Air Force. On our first 4thof July overseas, we gathered with other families of the 15thTactical Reconnaissance Squadron to celebrate the freedoms I had often taken for granted.

If I closed my eyes, I could almost imagine being back home and not on an island the size of New Jersey. I savored the familiar aroma of barbecued hamburgers and hotdogs. Picnic tables laden with steaming corn-on-the-cob, baked beans, and even juicy watermelon, an expensive delicacy in the Far East, waited for the lineup of hungry guests.      

Living in another culture had offered a multitude of new opportunities. I enrolled in Japanese courses, our sons played with Okinawan children with hardly a language barrier, and we sampled tempura-coated vegetables managing chopsticks instead of forks.  

I would never trade our experiences, but we missed the United States. Silly things like TV commercials that were absent from the Armed Forces station, but showed up with taped programs like Star Trek and Dallas. The usually annoying advertising now gave us glimpses of ordinary life back home. A way of life you would be hard pressed to find anywhere else.  

Even a trip to the movie theater on the military base got me choked up with nostalgia. They always played our National Anthem to preface the featured film, against a backdrop of Americana scenes.  Dorothy was right. There really wasn’t any place quite like home–Kansas or otherwise.

Years later, I still remember the rush of emotion I felt when our plane nosed through wispy clouds and the stately Golden Gate Bridge came into view. After three years, we had finally come home to the land of the free and the home of the brave. I would never take my country for granted again. 

Dear Lord, thank you for showing me the great value of freedom. 

Where Would We Be Without Friends?

When my mom had a mastectomy a couple of years ago, my dear friend Mary came to be with me.
Mary arrived at the hospital after Mom came out of surgery. Seeing a familiar face felt so reassuring. I threw my arms around my friend. I knew I could walk through this because I wasn’t walking alone.  Mary drove nearly two hours to be with me in Seattle. After her work shift, she loaded a cooler with bottled water, juices, fruits, and other snacks for us to enjoy at the hotel. She even tucked in a Starbucks gift card. Her presence meant the world to me.

Our friendship spans more than 30 years. We’ve walked a lot of roads together…weathered the storms of our husbands’ battles with alcoholism…  rejoiced with their sobriety…grieved over losses–parents, jobs, pets…celebrated weddings and births. We’ve shared life together and carried each other’s burdens. I don’t know where I’d be today without friends like Mary. I believe one of God’s most gracious gifts is the gift of friends.

Through the years, as I’ve been on the receiving end of a friend’s kindness, I’ve asked myself, what kind of friend am I? How can I be a better friend?

Lord, help me to be:

  • The friend who thinks of others and anticipates their needs.

  • The friend who is generous with her time.

    • The friend who is honest and loves you enough to tell you the truth.   

    • The friend who loves and accepts you no matter what.

     

    I’ve been blessed to have more than one friend like Mary. I pray you also have known the love of such a caring friend. No one can do life alone. God designed us to need one another.


    Two are better than one,
    because they have a good return for their work.
    If one falls down,
    his friend can help him up.  Ecclesiastes 4: 9-10

    I would love to hear how a friend has made all the difference in your life! 

        

      Reach Out!

      The half hour drive from Meridian, Idaho to Boise seemed like the longest of my life. Late one night, I packed our 10 and 7-year old sons in the car with me to escape the turmoil at home. My husband Randy had been drinking again. I suspected that he was an alcoholic. If I admitted that, then I’d be faced with reality–with the elephant that stalked our house. I felt at a total loss in knowing what to do.

      A few nights before, I had accused Randy of being an alcoholic. It was as if I’d thrown gasoline on a simmering fire. He exploded in anger and shoved me against the kitchen wall. I wanted to run away and never come back. But two little boys slept upstairs. I’m sure they weren’t really sleeping– probably terrified of what was happening between their parents. Even after 30 + years, I still remember how desperate I felt.

      I made the brave decision to take Chris and Jeremy with me to a women’s shelter at the YWCA in Boise. A kind woman greeted us at the door when we arrived. She showed us to a neat room with three roll-away beds. She assured us we would be safe. I hugged and kissed my sons and tried my best to reassure them. I’m not sure I slept much that night, but I felt some relief. We stayed there for a few days. After having several counseling sessions and discussions with Randy, I decided to go home.

      Even though it would be a long time before our home was a peaceful place, I had learned some important truths. I was no longer alone. I had been directed to Al-Anon, a support group for families and friends of alcoholics. There I would find tools and resources to help me deal with our problems. The journey toward my own healing and wholeness had begun. I will always be grateful for the YWCA in Boise and their caring staff who took us in that night. I also learned that no matter how bleak a situation appears, there is always hope for change.

      How often I’ve thought about the need we as women have for a time-out when circumstances get crazy. Maybe you’re not dealing with alcoholism and a spouse who is physically or verbally abusive. But you’re tired, weary. You need a place to just be quiet and hear yourself think. A place where you feel loved and can be reassured that you are going to be all right.  

      Remember, you are not alone. Help is only a phone call or internet click away. The YWCA was only my first step of support. I could write pages to list all the friends, counselors, and support groups who have been part of my recovery journey.

      Today, I can hardly believe I’m the same woman who made that impossibly long drive to reach out for help. I can hardly believe Randy is the same man who desperately needed to check out of reality by drinking. Today we enjoy the gift and miracle of sobriety in our lives and peace that comes from knowing we are in the center of God’s will.

      When you are called out of crippling fear…you will be amazed at what God has planned for you. There is a world of breathtaking wonder wrapped up in trusting God with everything you have and everything you are. You will discover that you are free! –Sheila Walsh

      Let me know if you need to reach out for help. I’d love to help you take a step on your journey to freedom!
        

      Change can be Good

      We’ve come to the end of another Thanksgiving weekend–the first Thanksgiving in many years that we’ve stayed home for the holiday. Usually we travel over the mountains, through the woods, and on the ferry to my parents’ home on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula.

      This year, Mom wasn’t feeling up to having company. Understandable. She’s still recovering from a mastectomy in August on top of the ongoing demands of caring for my dad who has dementia. I left the decision about Thanksgiving to Mom. We didn’t want to add an iota to her already overloaded plate of responsibilities…even though I would’ve loved to cook up all the traditional Thanksgiving fixings for her and Dad.

      One night after I talked with Mom, I woke up with that unsettled feeling that I’ve experienced more frequently. I recognize what it is–anxiety about my parents and how I can support them. Almost immediately, a phrase popped into my sleep-clouded thoughts: Change can be good. I remembered Patsy Clairmont at Women of Faith speaking about change and the positive outcomes it can bring. 
       
      Sometimes we get tunnel vision and we only see the bleakness of a situation. Dad and Mom alone on Thanksgiving…would Mom even want to cook? What if they had to resort to frozen dinners? That’s when I realized I don’t always consider the God- factor…how might He use this for good? How will the situation change when He shows up? What if the change I’ve been dreading or feeling sad about is the change that is most needed?

      It all comes back to trusting God…no matter what is happening around me. I must believe He will always be there. He knows all the ins and outs of every circumstance. My abilities and resources are limited. His are boundless.

      When I called Mom on Thanksgiving, I asked her if she was cooking.  No…she didn’t have to do any cooking. Her neighbors were bringing Thanksgiving dinner. “They insisted,” Mom added.

      Wow! The Lord had taken care of Dad and Mom without me making any arrangements. Changing our Thanksgiving plans had given Mom a much-needed rest–and the ability to be blessed by her neighbors. I breathed a sigh of relief and made a mental note to remember–yes, change can be good!

      Is there some change in your life you’re dreading? How does considering the God-factor help you face uncertainty? 

      Coming Home

      Last weekend I came home once again. I attended the Northwest Christian Writers Association Writers Renewal in Seattle. I love working the registration desk because I get to throw my arms around old friends and give an enthusiastic welcome to newcomers–imagining the bright, new world opening up to them.

      It’s still a mystery how the conference brochure showed up in my mailbox inviting me to my first writers conference–the one that our Writers Renewal has evolved from. It was summer, 1986. My life felt like a major detour. I had been “sentenced” to the couch with a knee injury. Two surgeries later, I was still trying to manage the chronic pain. The invitation to Seattle Pacific University’s writers conference grabbed me by surprise and got me thinking beyond a patella (knee cap) that didn’t track properly.

      When I hobbled onto the campus with cane in hand, I wondered why I had thought this was a good idea. I felt like a 13-year old on my first day of junior high–scared spitless! But something happened during those two days. Even though it was my first experience with writers, I felt familiar…like this was where I belonged. I sensed a new journey had begun…one of stringing words together, being honest and true about my own life experiences; the joys, sorrows, and disappointments. I came away committed to write about the hope we have in Jesus Christ…no matter what’s going on around us. Since then, I’ve had the incredible privilege of sharing this hope far beyond what I could have imagined.

      On my drive home from this year’s conference, gratitude welled up inside me. How amazing it is to have the support and encouragement from a community of writers/friends who share the journey with me. People who have not only extended their hands to help me, but also their hearts. We are in this together–not fierce competitors who clutch our creativity for fear someone else might steal it. Editors, agents, and workshop leaders reiterate the message: we are here to help you succeed. And they mean it.

      The next time you feel frustrated because of some unplanned life-detour, don’t despair. This might be the catalyst pointing you in the direction where God is calling, where He can use you and your strengths for His greatest purpose. Without that annoying, difficult time-out in my life, I might not have found my way home.

      What I Learned From My Colonoscopy

      I promise not to give you too much information. (T.M. I.), but I wanted to tell a little about my colonoscopy experience.

      My doctor had been insistent. “You need a colonoscopy. It’s the screening that can save your life.”

      I’d been reluctant, mostly because of the cost–close to $3,000 including the doctor’s fees, anesthesiologist, and hospital. Wow! For that amount, Randy and I could have taken a cruise. Somehow, two colonoscopy procedures just didn’t sound like that much fun. When our insurance kicked in for the new benefit period, a screening colonoscopy was now included under preventive care benefits. 

      I knew it was time.I scheduled my appointment with the G.I. doctor–one week before Thanksgiving. It’s perfect, I thought. An instant weight loss program right before the holidays. 

      Friends who had already had the procedure briefed me with important tips. Spend the money on the pills for the prep so you don’t have to drink that awful stuff. Buy some Depends–just in case. And you’ll want to stay close to home…

      O.K., O.K. So how bad could the awful drink be? I refused to pay the $80 for the pills. I thought of many other fun things I could spend the money on–then found out later from another friend, that it would have been worth the money. He was right.

      On the morning before my colonoscopy, I could only have liquids. Water, of course, apple juice, broth, even jello, as long as it wasn’t cherry or grape-flavored. Later in the day, I started drinking the liquid. What? You mean I have to drink two liters now–and two more in the morning? Ooh, not good. I thought of 2- liter pop bottles and how tough it would be to chug a bottle that size.

      The instructions from the doctor’s office said the liquid might be easier to swallow using a straw. Don’t believe it! I knew the prep would be the tough part, and I’d already mentally prepared. When I started feeling hunger pangs (one of my co-workers unknowingly brought in pumpkin muffins to work that morning), I thought of how blessed I am to never be hungry– I mean really hungry. Lord, please be with those who are hungry.

      I thought of my homeless brother who regularly scavenges food from dumpsters. He lost 50 pounds recently when he became violently ill after eating some bad food. Lord, please provide for him, physically, emotionally, spiritually.

      I thought of people who have chronic illnesses because they don’t have clean drinking water. Lord, don’t ever let me forget how blessed I am. And don’t let me stop with simply giving thanks. What can I do to help those less fortunate?

      It might seem strange, but I tried to use each moment of discomfort during the colonoscopy prep to pray for others. A small action, but a case in point for prayer and fasting. Going without gives opportunity to get back to the basics, having deeper communication with God.

      I’m not saying you need to have a colonoscopy to do this–plain old fasting would work just fine. But it was an interesting observation for me.

      One week later, I was enjoying our traditional Thanksgiving feast…turkey, mashed potatoes and all the trimmings–but with an even deeper sense of gratitude for our countless blessings. I’m going to use the $80 I saved on those pills to help someone in need.    

      It’s All in the Perspective

      When Randy lost his job and career as an air traffic controller 16 years ago, we were suddenly thrust into a new world. Where we once had enough money, not only for the basics, but for extras, too, we now found ourselves in a position we hadn’t known in a long time:  how to get along on very little.

      I look back and cringe when I see the many mistakes we made with managing our money. Until Randy found  another job, we lived on his retirement savings. Fear of the financial unknown dictated some poor choices. We attended a job fair and fell for a smooth-talking entrepreneur’s pitch that investing in pay telephones was certain to be lucrative. How could we have known that cell phones were already making pay phones nearly obsolete? It all sounded so good. Once you paid for the phones (a mere $10,000–gulp!), you had to place them in strategic locations. Then all the money plugged into them was gravy. What could be easier?

      Now I look back with 20/20 hindsight, barely able to believe we fell for that scam. The business was legitimate, but what they neglected to tell us was how difficult it would be to find places that wanted payphones– and how expensive the monthly phone bills to support 8-10 phones would be! A friend and financial adviser helped us make the decision a few months into this venture, to bite the bullet, get out and never look back. We finally managed to recoup about $1,000 when we found a buyer for the phones. Ouch! 

      I wish I could say this was our only bad financial decision. Again, fear played a part in investing our dwindling “nest egg” in a company that had rave reviews for its high returns. I should have listened to my dad who wisely said, “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” We had our savings in a traditional investment that wasn’t performing as well as this other company. The carrot dangled in front of us–and we bit into it, swallowing the whole thing.

      At first, all the numbers looked great, monthly reports impressive. Randy and I often sat with a calculator crunching numbers. Wow! This is amazing, we’d tell ourselves, a little too smugly. After several years, we convinced Randy’s dad who was a savvy investor, and a good friend of mine to invest her 401K savings in this fund.

      Then one day our friend who had referred us to this company called in shock. “It’s all a scam,” he said evenly. “The largest Ponzi scheme in history.” At least we had that distinction until Bernie Madoff came along.

      How could we be so stupid? We kicked ourselves for a long time–and felt terrible that we had influenced others to join and lose their hard-earned savings as well. 

      We have learned from these painful lessons, situations we wouldn’t have knowingly signed on for. Yet what we have gained is valuable. We’ve been forced to face the difficult reality of how we have handled money.

      When Randy had a generous income, we spent most of it. There was always something new we wanted. And when we got that item, something else appeared on the list of “must-haves.” I perused catalogs for the latest home decor or new clothes. We ate out at restaurants frequently and didn’t think anything of taking weekend jaunts and charging everything on our credit cards, which frequently crept toward the maximum allowed. 

      We were always looking for something to fill the gaps, to make us content. Who would think it would take losing almost everything for us to learn what real contentment is about?

      In this most simple way of living, when you only have enough for your needs, (not your “greeds” as one wise author once said), we have discovered freedom. Now I wonder why I thought I needed all the stuff that eventually makes its way into the rummage pile?

      In God’s economy, He uses the exact circumstances we need for us to grow to be more like Him; wiser stewards of what He has given us, and more compassionate in caring for others less fortunate. Without these financial setbacks, I might not have acquired a change in perspective. I have learned that God is our provider, all that we have ultimately belongs to Him. Our security isn’t found in jobs or bank accounts, that are tenuous at best. A timely truth with the uncertain  financial climate we face in 2010.

      Today Randy and I can offer each other grace for the mistakes we’ve made and gratitude for the richest blessings in life that money can’t buy.