Neighbors race together to keep the Taylor Bridge wildfire from burning their homes.
ELLENSBURG — When he first spied the smoke over the ridge above his Horse Canyon home on Monday, Greg Campbell was relaxing in his neighbor’s yard, drinking Gatorade and talking home repairs.
Ninety minutes later, the valley’s notoriously unpredictable, swirling winds had already sent flames racing downhill. The fire chewed through dense ponderosa pine and Douglas fir, ripped through one neighbor’s house and started coming for Campbell’s.
That’s when fellow Canyon resident Jeremy Hink showed up in his boss’ bulldozer.
“It came up really quickly,” Campbell said. “We had literally no time, but Jeremy was out there cutting line, doing everything he could to protect us all.”
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When Kittitas County Sheriff’s deputies ordered the neighborhood to evacuate Monday, Hink and others already had started scraping a dirt trough between the burning hillside and the farm homes on Bettas Road. Campbell lost a well pump house and a rototiller. His three snowmobiles went up so hot and fast that the aluminum melted and pooled in a trail near his driveway.
But the charred and smoking-black grass stopped within 15 feet of his house, which was still standing midday Tuesday.
Here, one hillside over from the narrow, winding Yakima River Canyon where the bulk of the Taylor Ridge Fire is being fought, neighbors are banding together trying to hold the line on their own. They are digging fire breaks with shovels and corralling livestock and pooling resources to keep each others’ homes safe.
Hink, who makes his living digging underground utilities, kept arriving with another piece of borrowed equipment.
“There are a lot of other priorities for the firefighters right now,” Hink said. “We are kind of on our own.”
The risk isn’t going away soon. Throughout late morning Tuesday flames could always be seen a few hundred yards in any direction from the row of houses on either side of the street.
“I’m worried, really worried,” said Bill Fitzgerald, as he stood in his driveway watching trees burst into orange a few football fields away.
By midday flames were gobbling up the pines one after another and planes were dropping loads of orange fire retardant behind his house. But spot fires also were ripping through dry, tall grasses across the road in front of his house, about a quarter mile away.
Shortly after noon, a team of about 10 neighbors scraped a dirt line with shovels as sparks and embers picked up by the wind kept starting small, new blazes in a hilly field. Within 20 minutes another gust came up from nowhere, sending the flames racing across the pasture so quickly that everyone had to sprint downhill for the road.
“That was too close,” said Liam Shaw, who has been working to put out these fires since late Monday.
Said the home’s owner, David Firth, “That truly was us running for our lives.”
Firth said he never heard a wildfire erupt before. “It has a distinctive and impressive sound. There’s a seriousness about it. You really don’t know what’s going to happen next.”
As the friends and neighbors, dusty and sweating from exertion, leaned against their trucks and watched the blazing field of fire make a run toward another friend’s home, someone muttered, “Oh man.”
But just before the flames reached the house, a small cheer went up. Down the road a water truck had arrived and started heading up the winding driveway, dousing everything in sight.
It was Hink, again, in another borrowed vehicle. He quickly turned to dry alfalfa, making a soupy mess until it was clear the house would be OK, at least for the moment.
“He’s been out here all night,” said his wife, Kelly Hink. “He said he just wasn’t going to stand by and do nothing.”
Neither were his neighbors.
Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @craigawelch.