We Joined Troops Battling Washington’s Wildfires
'We're saving our own people's lives,' soldiers say as blazes near
The air is hard to breath as we walk up the gravel road. Smoke fills the air, obscuring the trees and mountains in the distance. It’s Aug. 25 and we’re about 10 miles south of Loomis, Wash. — one of several towns in the path of the Okanogan Complex Fire.
It’s now the largest wildfire in Washington state history at more than 200,000 acres. Members of the Washington National Guard are checking to see how close the fire has come to our position.
The smoke is an eerie yellowish color. It would almost look like fog if everything around us wasn’t bone dry, and if the air didn’t taste like ash.
As we peer through the haze from a ridge, we can see a few embers from the fire. At first just one tree, then several. “OK, you can grab some pictures or video real quick,” Staff Sgt. David Vinton hurriedly tells me. “But we need to go.”
The town of Loomis is a small, rural settlement in the mountains of northern Okanogan County. The population is somewhere between 120-150 people scattered around the hills. Many of the farms in this community are passed down through generations.
Members of the 506th Military Police Detachment arrived here earlier in the week. Unlike some National Guard units on the front lines with hoses, axes and chainsaws supporting civilian firefighters, many members of the 506th have little to no wildland firefighting training. But that doesn’t mean they have nothing to offer.
Instead, they’re here to keep watch over the fires in the distance and aid townspeople in the event of an evacuation. But as more more guardsmen begin pitching in with logistics — handling evacuations, equipping shelters and monitoring flareups — they’re freeing up firefighters to deal with the flames themselves.
Loomis is currently under a Level 2 evacuation notice. If the fire gets within six miles of the town it will bump up to Level 3 — a last ditch effort to evacuate residents. The soldiers have been periodically checking in on locals and monitoring the fire at a ridgeline to the south.
The town and the surrounding hills are a challenging place to operate. There’s no cellphone service, and the mountainous terrain often disrupts the soldiers’ radios.
Luckily for the guardsmen, local watering hole Sully’s Restaurant has a Wi-Fi connection and a landline. The management has let the 506th use it as an impromptu communications center, and the troops depend on it to communicate with their superiors to the south in Okanogan. Townspeople also offered the soldiers housing in a vacant rental home.
“They’re willing to stick their necks out for us and make us feel like part of the family,” Vinton says. “So you want to fight for your family, and we want to stay here.”
Vinton explains that the soldiers requested their superiors give them responsibility for the town after developing a quick rapport with the locals. They intend to stay until — and if — the town has to be evacuated, and they plan to help everyone they can.
But if the evacuation order comes, there will be some significant challenges.
“[If that happens] we’re in a race against time with the fire,” Sgt. Travis Pope explains. “I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a fire before, but there is no time”
Evacuating this area would be tough, particularly for the residents who live in the most remote areas. The terrain is mountainous and at times difficult for the most rugged vehicles. And even if they can account for everyone, many of the soldiers say they worry that some residents will refuse to leave.
“You have some of these fruit farmers, fifth generation fruit farmers out here and this is their livelihood,” Spec. Eli Wilson says. “A lot of them we’ve heard them say they’re not gonna leave their farms, they’re gonna stay right through it no matter how hard it hits and protect what’s been passed down to them from generation to generation.”
“We’re telling people to leave their lives behind, it’s not easy,” Pope says. “It can get emotional, you have to try to have empathy when you talk to people … but also separate emotion from reality.”
Though the soldiers don’t want to see anyone left behind, they can’t make anyone abandon the town. “If that’s what their wishes are, you gotta respect that,” Vinton says. “We’re not here to force people out of their homes, this isn’t martial law. We’re just here to help them as much as possible.”
The soldiers explain that a Level 3 evacuation is essentially a last call. After that, all resources will go toward fighting the fire itself. No resources will be diverted to help anyone who decides to stay behind. They will be on their own.
But many residents are getting ready to leave, and trying to salvage what they can. That includes ranchers who’ve free-range grazed their cattle for decades. “A lot of the locals are actually out here on their quads trying to round up as much of their cattle as they can,” Vinton says.
Losing their animals would be losing thousands of dollars worth of property and income.
“It’s gotten worse,” Vinton says as we drive back through the haze in a Humvee. “[When we first got here] it was like country air out here, now look at it.”
“The visibility is less than a mile give or take in some places,” Wilson says as he drives, peering through the smoke.
The smoke is a major concern. It’s a health risk for residents and a logistical problem for firefighters. The poor visibility can make it dangerous for aircraft to fly support missions. A military official said that Army helicopters were grounded near Okanogan, but the soldiers say they saw a civilian helicopter dumping water on the fire earlier in the day.
Vinton points outside the window and talks about the terrain as we drive. Though he said the dry summer has made much of the burning area “a tinder box,” a lot of the farms around Loomis are surrounded by creeks and marshlands. The soldiers hope that it will stop or at least slow the flames, but there’s always the possibility winds could cause the fire to “jump” the obstacles and keep moving.
“We’re hoping as long as the wind is in our favor it’ll be a slow roll,” he says, but he warns that a “good northern gust” could change the situation quickly.
“It started up on the mountain top right above Blue Lake and it’s already worked its way down to the creek,” he says. “So it’s burned up the mountain since we’ve been here in the last 24 hours.”
He recalls watching the fire the first night the soldiers were in the area, and witnessing a single tree “light up” the night sky. “Out of nowhere a tree just catches on fire, big as heck, just a big old ball of flame,” he says.
“It was comparable to watching an oil field just get caught on fire. So if seeing one was like that I can only imagine what the rest would look like.”
Vinton deployed to Iraq twice. But in many ways, he says this deployment is more challenging and rewarding. “We’re actually losing something here, we’re actually losing our own land,” he says. “[There’s] a greater sense of pride, we’re saving our own people’s lives.”
“Not saying one life is worth more than the other,” he adds. “But when you’re fighting on your homeland you fight harder.”
Right now the fire threatens not only Loomis but a huge habitat reserve. They regularly see deer, birds and other critters in the fields and in the trees. “It’s just sad to see this wildlife just gone,” Vinton says of the forests already consumed. “It’ll take a long time for this to grow back.”
We don’t spent more than a few minutes watching the fire. Though not yet a Level 3 crisis, Vinton wants to get back to town to report back on the change as soon as possible.
As we drive back, the deer are out, watching the massive Humvee roll by as they graze in the fields below the road. “You’re getting cheated, I wish you could see this,” Vinton teases Wilson.
“Well sergeant, I’m trying to focus on the road so we don’t die,” Wilson replies.
“It’s gotten bigger,” Vinton tells Pope when we get back to Sully’s. Town leaders, including the local fire chief, had just wrapped up a community meeting.
Outside, a farm hand from Idaho chats with the soldiers, thanking them for being here. He tells them he was thinking about volunteering — for the first time in history Washington state is accepting volunteers to fight the fires.
The soldiers relax. They say they haven’t had much sleep since arriving. Pope and Vinton head inside the restaurant to do some paperwork. Moments later, Pope rushes out. “We might have a problem,” he says.
Someone’s reported another set of flames approaching the town, a different set than the one we’d seen coming from the other direction. The soldiers quickly break out a map on a bench nearby, illuminated by the red open sign in the window.
They plot out a course to find the fire. “We’re going to lose comms,” Pope says.
“Yeah, that’s without a doubt. All that I ask is that we be safe,” Vinton replies.
“OK, let’s do this man,” Vinton says as they load up their Humvees and return to the wilderness.
At press time, Loomis remains at Level 2 notice and there’s no news of any changes. But America’s war with fire rages on.