Night of the Inferno
by Andy Dappen
Photos by Mike Rolfs and Heather Dappen
The Sleepy Hollow Fire started Sunday afternoon (June 28). Wind propelled the fire east and south toward Wenatchee where it destroyed 30 homes and several businesses before a combination of rain and fire fighting efforts helped contain the blaze. The headquarters of WenatcheeOutdoors, a euphemism for the basement office from which the website operates, was in the line of fire. Sunday evening the computers and paper files supporting the content, maps, and photos of this website were loaded into cars poised for fast escape as the fire approached. Here’s an accounting — one of hundreds around Wenatchee right now — of what took place on the front line the night of the inferno.
How improbably propitious it was that we just happened to have Jamie Tackman and his family over for dinner the evening of June 28th. Jamie spent his career with the Forest Service fighting fires in various capacities (first on the ground, then in the air) and, as we saw the Sleepy Hollow Fire round the ridge several miles north of our house and start moving toward us with considerable speed, he got his family organized to water down the boundaries of our property where the oncoming fire would most likely strike. My wife, daughter, and I went into packing mode and threw computers, financial information, mementos, pictures, clothing, and essential outdoor gear into cars. Jamie also called in reinforcements (Mike Rolfs and Ben Sidor) to bring more tools, more hoses, and more muscle. Meanwhile a few neighbors showed up and Jamie put them to work preparing weak spots in our defense.
As the fire got close, Jamie gathered us all together and told us how we would fight this safely, how to move in and out on the fire as it flared and calmed, when and how he would pull the plug on our efforts if the fire was beyond what we could safely manage, how we would evacuate, and where we would reconvene. It was a godsend to be under the supervision of someone who had done this many, many times; knew what to expect; and knew how to manage manpower in an effective but safe fashion.
Meanwhile as the fire drew within a few hundred yards of the house, professional firefighters who had been battling the fire’s contact zone with the city at nearby houses showed up and established a position where trees on the perimeter of our property made us most vulnerable. They urged us to vacate the premises but Jamie believed we could play an important role in protecting the property and recommended that several of us remain to keep watering the grasses and sagebrush along the different contact zones where, we hoped, the fire would wrap around rather than burn over us.
We stood there with our little streams of water pissing from garden hoses into an approaching inferno that was devouring the old-growth sagebrush before us and shooting geysers of tangerine flames 30 feet in the air. Down the hill from us, the trees surrounding an old, vacant farmhouse caught fire and flames erupted 140 feet into the air. That property became a fireball and, in a matter of minutes, the farmhouse was completely consumed, save for the bone of a chimney that was left standing. That would be our fate if we let the fire jump into our trees.
And then the fire broke upon us. “Humidity mode everyone,” Jamie ordered.
As we had been instructed, this was the time to switch from sending a stream of water over surrounding vegetation to shooting as much water and mist as possible into the air before us. Occasionally the fire would torch a big sagebrush within a stone’s throw and hurl heat, smoke, and sparks at us. We would fall back from our positions and wait for the flames to die down. In that interim we searched for places where those swirling sparks might have touched down to spot new fires. When the flames would subside slightly, we would move closer and keep pumping mist into the air.
And that’s how it played out. By 3 a.m. on June 29th, the day that happens to be my birthday, I received an audacious birthday gift –the fire wrapped around our house rather than raged over it.
All of this could have so easily gone sideways. Not having Jamie, friends, and neighbors present to help would have changed our stars. The same goes for the fire fighters present who greatly strengthened our defense. We also benefited from very good luck. The westerly winds, which had been stronger earlier, had slackened some by the time the fire reached us. The direction of the wind was critical, too. If the wind had been coming out of the north rather than the west (which it often does) this would have driven the fire straight at us. In that scenario, I might be writing this article from a temporary office located in someone else’s home and might be relaying a very different story.
Thanks to the help of others and to the quirks of Fate, however, our home and the world headquarters of WenatcheeOutdoors still stand.
Our sympathies and well wishes go out to the many in the community whose stories did not end happily. We can relate to part of what these families experienced but not to the emotional loss of seeing the destruction of one’s home and the site of so many memories.
Besides Jamie, many put themselves in harm’s way to save our home and to prepare us to flee if it came to that. In particular big time thanks go to Polly and Katie Tackman, Jim White, Sean Koester, Ben Sidor, and Mike Rolfs.
Preparing for (and Fighting) Wildfires:
The recommendations for creating a defensible space, relies on different zones within 200 feet of your home and there is plenty of published material covering the basics of how to handle these zones. There are also lots of tips emphasizing such points as clearing all flammable materials within 30 feet of structures or trees you don’t want to burn; having a ladder quickly available to access your roof; having tools like shovels, rakes and axes ready to roll; having water ready (hose or pail) on the roof to extinguish spot fires…
Here are some things I learned from this fire:
1) Own enough hose to put all of your outdoor faucets to work at the same time. We were hose poor and friends and neighbors brought hose over so all of our faucets could be used to reach different danger zones.
2) If you have good water pressure, put splitters on your outdoor faucets so you can run two hoses from each faucet.
3) Have hose heads that have jet, shower, and mist modes.
4) Have decent sprinklers with easy adjustments for directing the spray so that you can quickly set them up in multiple places, leave them, and go do other things…like pack or evacuate.
5) A scythe (and a file to keep it sharp) is a valuable tool to quickly whack down and reduce the flame length of flammable brush along the edge of a property. Scythes are also a lot more reliable than weed whackers.
6) Firefighters who come to protect your house will say you need to leave, but leaving is actually your decision. Once you do leave, authorities won’t let you return to a threatened neighborhood so don’t leave with the belief you can come back if you have a change of heart. Staying or leaving is a very sticky decision. Depending on the behavior of the fire, staying could be extremely dangerous to you. Furthermore, fire behavior is notoriously unpredictable — even the experts get many little things and the occasional big thing wrong in their predictions about how fire will behave as it burns through an area. Nonetheless there are many times when your presence could make a big difference in protecting your home as you keep flying embers from spotting new fires and as you keep water and humidity flowing into places the pros don’t have the resources to watch. If you do stay to protect your property (this is not something I’m recommending but a personal choice) monitor the pros closely. If they are preparing to leave, get out ahead of them.
7) Have the right clothing ready: long-sleeve cotton shirt and pants, cotton or canvas gloves, cotton socks, cotton hat, stout leather boots, cotton bandana to shield your face, safety glasses. Cotton is slow to burn and holds lots of water should you wet it down to protect yourself from wafts of heat.
8) If you decide to help defend your property as the fire approaches, set up your escape vehicles in a safe place, don’t block the flow of other emergency vehicles, and have your cars pointed in the right direction. Know exactly where the keys are — you want to be able to start the car and gun it.
9) Good communication is something that’s extremely important yet easy to ignore in the chaos of the moment. Before the fire reaches your boundary, gather anyone else who is with you. Discuss your strategy, what everyone’s role will be, how you will pull the plug, what your evacuation plan will be, how you will be sure that everyone has left, and where you will reconvene after leaving.
10) Neighborhoods, especially those that are close to open lands at risk for wildfires, should meet well before the start of each fire season to discuss their fire preparedness and their neighborhood protocols. One example of the importance of this: Neighbor A below us was out of town and almost no one knew this. In fact, only through an improbable circumstance did Neighbor B learn of this. During this fire, Neighbor B rushed over to water the sagebrush and trees along an extremely vulnerable boundary. If Neighbor B had not been aware of Neighbor A’s absence and vulnerability, it is very likely that Neighbor A would have lost his house. And if Neighbor A’s home had burned, it’s almost certain that four or five adjacent homes with thick vegetation and cedar shake roofs would have burned as well. Having neighbors looking out for each other and bringing resources to the properties that are most vulnerable to an oncoming fire might save one house or it might save many.
Originally posted on 6/30/15.