Labor Day started out like any other Monday for me, with work being the main activity on my agenda. I listen to what I call “scanner-land” when I’m working at the Tribune. It doesn’t matter what day of the week or what time of day it is, or whether it’s a holiday, there is always company to be found in scanner-land.
Most of the time there’s the usual “talk” on the scanner, registrations of vehicles being checked out, speeders being cited or if they’re fortunate, just warned, the common things you would expect to hear on a scanner.
There are also amusing calls, like the one last week with the large pig running loose near Cavendish, reportedly traveling up the ditch near the road. I was waiting to hear what the officer on call would do with the animal once he caught up with it. But the owner arrived on the scene shortly after the call and apparently got it rounded up, because I didn’t hear anymore calls about a large pig on the loose.
There are some calls that are frightening and disturbing, and some that are tragic and heartbreaking, these are the calls that are hard to get out of your head. Sometimes there are calls that make you roll your eyes at how ridiculous they are, or scratch your head, wondering do police or emergency personnel really deal with these types of issues?
When the fire tones sounded Labor Day Monday I listened to hear where the fire department would be headed. This call was for a wildland fire on Wells Bench Road, now known as Grumpy Old Men Road. The crew from the Twin Ridge Fire Department responded to the scene quickly. I glanced out the window and noticed the branches of the tree were swaying a lot from the wind. I knew this wasn’t a good situation for anyone fighting fire.
Wells Bench Road is located above our property on Grangemont Road. I thought to myself that the odds of anything spreading that far would be unlikely. I listened for a while to see how things were progressing with the fire. It sounded as though it would be put out quickly.
Another call came in from an officer about a downed power line in a different location. I could tell by the calls coming in the winds were starting to wreak havoc. I began to have an uneasy feeling and called Darold. He was lowboying a piece of equipment and would soon be losing cell service. I told him I thought he needed to come back to the shop, things felt “off.”
Shortly after that, the call came in from the Sunnyside Rural Fire Department’s Fire Chief. There was a wildland fire that had broken out near his house, and also near another home, located on Clover Drive (this fire would be called the Clover Fire). The fire chief told those responding, multiple times, to make sure they didn’t get in front of the fire. I continued to listen closely as this fire progressed.
It didn’t take long to realize that this wasn’t a wildland fire that was going to be put out easily. As the scanner talk continued, the sound of urgency in the voices of those responding began to grow. As the updates continued to come in over the scanner as to where the fire was progressing to, it became obvious the enormity of the tragedy that was unfolding right here in our community.
Reports came in that there was fear the Sunnyside Rural Fire Department’s Fire Station could not be saved. There were reports of the fire being on both sides of the road. And all through this, the wind continued to blow. Knowing the location of the roads, and who lived there, I wondered if the homes could survive this firestorm. Thirteen houses did not, and I’m now hearing stories of people that barely got out in time themselves.
Shortly after this fire started, another call came in about a slide on the hill near Mile Marker 49 on Highway 12, that took down power lines. Soon, a fire had developed from this incident. This one would be named the MM49 Fire. People would also be evacuated and displaced from their homes due to this fire.
Throughout all this horribleness, the voices on the scanner remained calm. There was no denying the urgency in them, but never was there hysteria or loss of control.
My mind will never forget the sound of a sheriff’s deputy’s voice that was evacuating residents in harm’s way of the Clover Fire, saying over the scanner, “I can’t get out.” He had traveled down a one-lane road to tell residents of a home there that they needed to evacuate. I waited anxiously as another deputy, or maybe it was the sheriff himself, searched for the officer in that fire consumed area. I said a prayer of thanks when I heard the searching officer locate the stranded deputy. I later learned that the stranded officer’s pickup had quit running because of the fire.
I drove to the area of the Clover Fire later that evening, to pick up Darold, who along with our son, Cody, and family friend, Dolan, has been doing firefighting with equipment for several years. The intensity of the wind there was eerily strong. I was relieved to see that the fire station had been saved.
I saw a man with a water hose, standing in his yard near his house. The fire had come close, but his home had been spared. It would have made an excellent photo, I didn’t have the heart to take it. I saw the sheriff deputy’s partially burned pickup sitting in a pullout of the road, and I recalled the few terrifying moments I had witnessed, through voices, on the scanner. The whole scene seemed surreal.
This is the type of situation that leaves you almost speechless, saddened for all the losses. But if not for the expertise and calmness of those responding and fighting the fire, especially in those first few critical moments and hours, I have no doubt there would have been fatalities, like so many other surrounding states are suffering. I’ve always known that we are fortunate in Clearwater County to have the caliber of firefighters, first responders and officers that we do. This type of situation makes it undeniable.
The aftermath of these fires left many residents with no power for several days. Thankfully, to this date there have been no reports of destroyed homes in the MM49 Fire.
Along with the 13 homes lost in the Clover Fire, 31 outbuildings were destroyed, along with 26 vehicles and the sheriff’s deputy’s pickup. There have been reports of domestic pets perishing in the fire, and for awhile horses that had been turned loose so they could escape the fire were missing. They have now been found safe.
Several miles of guardrails have burned along Cavendish Road, and later this winter and next spring, there will be concerns of plugged culverts and slides, because of the vegetation being destroyed.
As one of my friends said to me, “It takes a special kind of person to run into situations that others are running away from.” Thank you to all of you, for all that you do.
There have been numerous accounts established at banks, credit unions, and at the Orofino VFW Post to help those that have lost so much in this fire. One thing that our community never seems to lose, is a sense of helping others in a time of need.