When Fire Comes Close

Written by Hilary Lundgren, Director of Chumstick Wildfire Stewardship Coalition (CWSC)
Photographed by Brain Shurgrue

Saturday afternoon, I was sitting on my porch editing a community After the Fire Resource guide.  As I was just about to hit save and shut down the computer to join my family on a camping trip, when my neighbor yelled “What’s up with the flames over the road?” Within a few seconds, I received a call from a friend who moved to town last week asking “Do we need to be worried about smoke?  What do we do?  Is this normal?”  After a quick call to Chelan County Fire District 3 (CCFD3), it was clear that things were “not good.” Homes were being threatened.  Early in my career, I spent time digging fireline, working on an engine, and spraying water, i.e., working on the landscape.  In this ‘new’ position with the Coalition and as a member of the Fire Adapted Community (FAC) Learning Network, I'd been working with the community.  My time and energy has been dedicated to helping to prepare our homes, landscapes, families, and businesses for the inevitable.  I had never worked so closely with a community of individuals where life as we know it could change with one ember.  Honestly, the moment that I heard that ‘it’ was happening, I froze.  And then I cried.  

Now what?  Were we ready?  Was I ready?  

We had done our work before the fire.  It was now time to trust the work of the landowners--and begin our during the fire work.  I took a deep breath, collected myself, packed up my computer and headed down to the station.  

When I arrived, the CCFD3 Auxiliary was in full force:  answering phones, preparing food for the firefighters, and sharing information.  The power was out for many Chumstick area residents and the cell tower had burnt down, so those who lost phone service (which was a significant population of Leavenworth area residents and visitors) were desperate for information.  As residents called or stopped by the station, we signed them up for the Chelan County Emergency Alert registry to be notified via text, voicemail, or email of any evacuation or shelter in place notices.  (Residents were still able to receive texts.)We shared Incident Management Team and Emergency Management notifications and fire status updates on social media to keep our community informed.  As the evening came to a close, the winds died down and fire behavior changed.

On Sunday morning the community was still on high alert and still seeking any type of information.  The CWSC took an opportunity to distribute Chelan County Special Needs Registry sign-up forms (the registry allows emergency responders to identify and notify those who may require additional assistance of potential risks and notices during a disaster), evacuation guides, and evacuation level notices (all forms in English & Spanish) at local area churches and the Red Cross temporary shelter.  At each stop, at least one person knew someone who would benefit from registering with the County’s Registry.  Many of the pastors and priests also service areas outside of the Leavenworth area (Peshastin, Monitor, Cashmere, Wenatchee) and were able to distribute informational materials to Hispanic communities and with rural congregations.

While smoke was in the air, CWSC began to receive calls and photos from landowners who were immediately taking action to reduce their risk.  Residents were raking pine needles off of their roof, cleaning gutters, and removing fuels from around their home.  (They wanted to know when CWSC, in partnership with the Washington Department of Natural Resources, would be offering a Fuel Reduction and Chipping cost-share program!)

As the fire moved away from homes and into forested areas, the community began to feel a sense of relief.  CWSC worked with CCFD3 to distribute After the Fire door hangers (created by FAC Learning Network members) that include post-fire watch-out situations and recovery resources.  The Incident Management Team hosted a community meeting where they shared the progress of their efforts.  The number of organizations and fire-centric entities and organizations present at the meeting (US Forest Service, Washington Department of Natural Resources, NOAA, CCFD3 and Auxiliary members, National Weather Service, Burlington Nothern Railway, Red Cross, Chelan County Public Utility District, Cascadia Conservation District, Chelan-Douglas Health District, Chelan County Roads Department, as well as many others) demonstrated the success of interagency coordination.  The CCFD3 Chief, Kelly O’Brien, noted that in his 20+ year career he has never had an incident run so smoothly.  Residents were given many accolades for doing their work – preparing their home and landscape – but above all creating a space for response entities to do their job safely and effectively.

At the meeting, CWSC and Cascadia Conservation District were able to share After the Fire resource guides and informational pamphlets generated by the FAC Learning Network and NOAA (and even a few pages from the draft Leavenworth area After the Fire Resource Guide that we were working on when the fire broke out…).  CWSC took the opportunity to remind residents that the work is not over.  Even though the flames were not at our door-step, a change in weather conditions in combination with the changed landscape still poses a risk (unstable slopes, debris flows, and falling trees are potential post-fire considerations). The CWSC also stressed the importance of contacting insurance agents to verify flood insurance policies.  

As I reflect over the last few days, the principals of the prescribed fire 4 Rights Campaign launched by the Bureau of Indian Affairs Pacific Region (shared by a fellow Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network member) keep coming to mind.  The 4 rights, Right People, Right Place, Right Time, and Right Choice, can easily be translated to the success of this wildfire incident:

Interagency and community organization coordination, communication, and support resulted in safe and effective response; firefighters from CCFD3 and other local fire districts were prepared and well trained; the CWSC’s connections with partners has allowed us to share information faster and support those seeking assistance (right people). Work of the residents created a landscape to reduce the risk of wildfire to their homes and create defensible space for firefighters (right place). Weather conditions played a significant role in fire behavior and allowed fire fighters to conduct burnout operations resulting in a low-moderate severity burn (right time). Individuals who have taken steps to prepare themselves, their organizations, and community are leading the path toward becoming a truly fire adapted community (Right Choice).

Yesterday it rained.  Today the weather is cool and clouds are in the air.  Firefighters are packing their tools and refueling their engines and their bodies for the next incident.  The plume has turned into a few puffs of smoke.  Organizations are assessing the post fire impacts on the landscape and to homeowners.  With each conversation and each action, we will learn, we will share, and we will continue to prepare.  Maybe next time I won’t cry.

The Chumstick Coalition is the Washington host site of National Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network and Member of Washington State Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network which are working to engage communities across the Nation and in Washington to take actions to share how they are reducing their risk before, during and after wildfire.  

Learn more about the Chumstick Coalition