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.