Wildfires Can't Burn the Strength of a Small Community
Shortly after settling in Kittitas County, located in Washington's beautiful central valley, Liam Shaw signed on as a volunteer with the local fire department.
His choice wasn't due to a burning passion for the career, but more out of necessity. Wildfires are not only a reality in the rural area, but a frequent one at that. Shaw, who also works full time as a Gallagher Territory Manager, said the decision to volunteer was an easy one.
"When you live in a rural setting and there's not enough funding for a fully-staffed fire department, you step up," says Shaw. "That's part of what living in the country means. You work together as neighbors and as a community."
Unfortunately, it didn't take long for Shaw to put his firefighting skills to practice.
It was August 13, 2012 when the Taylor Bridge fire started in Kittitas County. In total, the fire burned roughly 23,500 acres, claimed 61 homes and hundreds of outbuildings in its path. More than 1,000 firefighters fought for over two weeks to bring the fire under control – among them was Shaw.
"I was operating a fire tender gathering water from a pond about a half mile from my home in an effort to control the fire," recalls Shaw. "As I was working, I saw fellow firefighters coming up the road heading towards the direction of my property. The fire was spreading fast and quickly approaching my home and livestock facilities. It was reassuring to know we were working together as a community to combat the fire that was getting far too close for comfort."
Wildfires destroy thousands of acresThe flames came within 100 feet of his house. Luckily, Shaw's prior preparation, coupled with the help of the fast-acting firefighters, ultimately saved the family home, livestock and property.
"We were fortunate," says Shaw. "We had advance notice to move our horses out of harm's way off the property to a horse park outside the fire's reach. We also rounded up our cattle and secured them as close to the house as possible. Combating the Taylor Bridge fire was certainly a coordinated team effort."
"Community members, friends and neighbors jumped the fire line to help stop the spread of the fire," Shaw remembers. "They grabbed shovels and tools to dig lines and ditches to keep the fire from advancing."
Shaw says the community's strength was prevalent not only during the fire, but also after.
"Following the fire, we worked together to help rebuild and restore what was lost. We were still dealing with the ramifications six- to 12-months later. It took a neighbor almost five months to locate all of his missing cattle, and for many, there were sections of the ground you couldn't touch for quite some time – and in some areas livestock couldn't graze for almost two years," Shaw says.
As history sometimes has the unfortunate way of repeating itself, residents of Kittitas County faced a new blaze to battle – the Snag Canyon fire – almost two years later to the day. Caused by lightning on August 2, 2014, the Snag Canyon fire started 12 miles north of the county's largest city, Ellensburg, and burned more than 12,500 acres.
"Like the Taylor Bridge fire, the community was prepared well in advance," says Shaw. "Trailers were hooked up ready to load and transport livestock quickly, and we strategically placed containers filled with water around our properties in case we needed to control the fire on our own. We were also ready to evacuate with a moment's notice."
Once again, Shaw says it was the commitment of his neighbors who rushed to action to assist the community and each other.
"One of our neighbors owns a large water truck," he explains. "Without hesitation, my neighbor filled up the truck and went after the fire before the fire crews even had a chance to show up. I've never seen anything like it."
We had advance notice to move our horses out of harm's way off the property to a horse park outside the fire's reachShaw says the Taylor Bridge and Snag Canyon fires made his community as a whole more consciously "fire wise" and "fire ready." With the passing of each wildfire, neighbors make necessary adjustments to their individual properties in preparation for the next wildfire season. "Sure we pray for rain and hope for the best," he says, "but you learn from the past, make changes for the future and get prepared for the next time – because it is going to happen."
"Despite the challenges we face, this community continues to come together and prosper," Shaw says. "I know I can count on my family, friends, neighbors, colleagues and even my employer, Gallagher North America."
Gallagher North America frequently teams with other agencies and experts to conduct Wildfire Preparation and Recovery Workshops that discuss the impact of large wildfires on communities. Topics covered include evacuation procedures, property protection, restoration and recovery. To view a list of our currently scheduled workshops and grazing seminars, please visit: Gallagher Events.