By Ken Bevis, DNR Stewardship Wildlife Biologist
This month I have a breathless true story cobbled together from various participants, with lessons and morals throughout. If you live in fire country, pay attention.
On Friday, August 1, 2014 at approximately 1:30 pm, a trailer got a flat tire on Highway 153 near Winthrop. The driver didn’t notice right away and kept driving for a ways. The trailer’s steel rim showered sparks along the road into extremely dry grass and brush, and a fire immediately started.
Unfortunately, the wind was blowing and in a very short time the fire was moving fast and headed northwest, directly towards our house on Rising Eagle Road. It was about 100 degrees Fahrenheit. We live on a hill, surrounded by scattered ponderosa pines and (before the fire) bunchgrass and considerable mature bitterbrush. Last winter was dry and spring was wet, making for lush growth – not good when combined with a very hot, dry summer.
The Carlton Complex had erupted 16 days earlier directly across the valley from us, spreading massive destruction and havoc in our area. It was a true firestorm, at one point moving 30 miles in 7 hours and destroying much forest and property in its path, including parts of Pateros. We weren’t in that fire’s path, but watched it burn across the valley from us for many days. We got ready in case fire came our way with our own Level 1 evacuation preparation. My wife Teri and I worked on our defensible space, weed whacking tall grass, pulling flammable materials away from the house, and running our sprinklers to wet down the lawn and adjacent areas. We worked hardest in the 30 feet closest to the buildings, but we also put a lot of thought into where we could expect a fire to come from and worked on those areas too. Our preparation was integral to what happened next.
When the Rising Eagle Road fire erupted, the local fire district volunteers (Okanogan 6) were on the scene in a few short minutes. Teri was the only one home and she was given about 10 minutes to evacuate. They came up our drive and positioned themselves with hose lays around the perimeter of the house. Ingress and egress are essential elements if firefighters are to defend a structure and we have a wide circular turn around in front of the house that they could use to get out if they had to. I found out later they were forced to make some quick judgment calls as to where they could go, and some firefighters were familiar with our road and the houses up there so they came and defended our house. One neighbor, tucked deep in the pines below, was not so lucky and their house burned to the ground.
When the volunteers arrived, the fire wasn’t quite to our hill, but the smoke was low and thick and visibility was very poor.
Hoses were laid and very quickly the fire came roaring across the hill, pushing flames 15 to 20 feet high through the tall bitterbrush (aka “gasoline on a stick”) and torching pine trees in the draw below the house. The firefighters sprayed water on the grassy perimeter around our buildings, on our woodpile (away from the shop but near the perimeter), and all around the house. They tossed away the burnable items we’d missed, like the hollow log tucked next to the house that was, in the description of a firefighter, “burning like a roman candle”. If he hadn’t found it, the siding would have caught fire. A pile of raspberry clippings were extinguished in a garden bed 10 feet from the house. Four of my honey bee hives, 100 feet from the house, erupted into flames and burned into oblivion. A firefighter blasted them with a hose saving the two tallest hives. Another firefighter told me they had to hold the line because, “if your house went up we were toast. It was a life or death situation”. The battle raged for 20 to 30 minutes with blinding smoke and the volunteers putting out embers where they found them. The most intense part of the fire front burned past our house in less than 30 minutes, but the hill was still burning after it passed.
The fire was raging to the Northwest and threatening many more homes. The crews were ordered to go to the front of the fire about a mile away and quickly pulled the hoses from our property and moved on. A friend who was at our house fighting the fire described driving his fire truck down through a burning stand of overstocked ponderosa pine on our neighbor’s property, with fire licking the truck on both sides. Our hill was still smoking and burning, but the worst seemed to have passed our house.
We live overlooking the North Cascades Smokejumper base at the Winthrop Airport. There were at least 7 helicopters based there fighting the Carlton Complex, and in a very short time an armada of airships with buckets began fighting the Rising Eagle Road fire. They worked in rotation, filling buckets in the Methow River and dropping on targets all across the fire. The fire reports said that this was a very intense aerial attack due to the number of air ships in the limited space. At one time there were 12 helicopters, two water bombers and the amazing DC10 jet retardant plane attacking this fire. The Rising Eagle Fire was coming directly toward the Twin Lakes neighborhood and the main fire camp for the Carlton Complex and stopping it was imperative.
One of the things we missed during our “fire-proofing” was a box of wood scraps about 20 feet from my shop. Yes, it was too close and it caught on fire, with 6 to -8 foot flames erupting after the ground crew was ordered to leave. Ed Stockard, our neighbor across the valley and about 1.5 miles east, watched in horror as the blaze moved towards the shop, taking photographs with his long lens. Helicopters were working the hill, but missed putting out the box at least 5 times. Then, a big Orange and White Sikorsky S58T scored a bulls eye bucket drop and Ed cheered. Like most shops, ours has chainsaw gas, propane tanks, etc, and if it had gone up, the house would’ve too. Airships continued to work the hill and drop water on hot spots and structures for several hours, helicopters and planes buzzing the smoky air.
I made it to Ed’s house in late afternoon and watched the fire continue to burn avidly across the hill, while the helicopters kept dropping water on the hot spots. We watched in horror as another friend and neighbor’s beautiful woodland custom home burned to the ground. Nearer our house, one full time home, two part time cabins and two garages also burned down. These structures burned completely, leaving only twisted metal and unburnables in the place of people’s work and dreams. All told, ten houses and numerous outbuildings burned down in the Rising Eagle fire, a small portion of the 250,000 plus acres, over 350 homes and numerous outbuildings destroyed in the Carlton Complex.
I came home at midnight with Ed in tow, to a smoky, smoldering hillside, and grabbed the evacuation boxes that Teri hadn’t had time to grab when she evacuated earlier in the day. Ed and I could see three smoking hot spots on the hillside below the house from across the valley and we hunted them down. We buried smoldering pieces of firewood that had been blasted off of the fire pit by helicopter water drops. One was close enough to the remaining dry grass to have been a problem. I couldn’t sleep and returned a few short hours later at dawn, to find our home standing. I looked all around for embers and found two more smoking spots near the house that I doused with buckets of water. I walked the hill shocked at the devastation of our property and neighborhood, and amazed that our house was still standing.
Over the next week days, shifts of firefighters from at least 5 states came across our hill looking for hot spots. The Public Utility District workers immediately started repairing the burned out power lines. And our little forest was a blackened smoking ruin…
But our house still stands in its little green spot. The lessons we learned?
- Preparation makes a big difference. Our defensible space land wasn’t perfect, but it existed and gave the firefighters something to work with. We had a green lawn and gravel, wetted ground, flammables were pulled away from the buildings, leaves swept up, we had used flame resistant deck materials, and our sprinklers were running at the most vulnerable side.
- Firefighter access is also huge. Not only was there ingress and egress, but there was a wide turnaround for the fire truck. The shared road below us is wide and graveled, but where it crosses the neighbor’s property it was too thick with trees and we had been planning to enter into a DNR sponsored thinning project later this year. Luckily the fire district decided to come in and fight our fire. Once here, the professionalism of the fire team took over and they worked hard to save the house.
- Nearby air support was a very fortunate circumstance. The burning box would have been caught by the local fire fighters in normal circumstances, but the helicopters kept the fire at bay and pushed back hard. If not for the Carlton Complex, no helicopters would have been immediately available, much less 12.
- Follow up afterwards was important in preventing an after the fact fire from erupting. Teri and I have continued to work on the fire wise prescription we received after an inspection by Okanogan Conservation District, cutting back brush and trees that could cause problems in another event.
- Luck is part of the fire equation. My firefighter friend said that fire is “fickle” and he’s seen it burn places where people did almost everything right. He described a house with excellent defensible space, trees well-spaced back from the house, but with a woodpile stacked against the house on the second floor deck. The woodpile caught fire and was burning out of control when they got there. The house burned to the ground. We found several small ember burns in vulnerable places around our house afterwards, our Trex decking is marked all over with black burn scars and the patio furniture is full of melted holes, but the house and outbuildings survived. The details matter…..
My wife and I were traumatized by this experience, but we came out ok. It easily could have had a very different outcome. We feel a mix of deep sadness for our friends and neighbors that lost homes and elation that our home was spared. It’s a strange feeling that I never wish to repeat.
I share this story as a witness to Fire Safe. It’s real. If you live in fire country, take steps to prepare for fire. It’s not if fire will burn near you, but when and we need to be ready.