SPOKANE — Five years ago, a prophetic email landed in Cody Rohrbach’s inbox.
“Spokane is a real concern to me — think back to 1991. So much attention is on the greater Wenatchee area, and rightly so, BUT, I think a large fire impacting that south to NW side is highly likely and the science brings that to bear, particularly with the high rate of spread fuels and winds,” wrote Rick Stratton, who studies fire risk for the U.S. Forest Service. “I don’t think you can lose the whole town, like Paradise (Calif.), but I do think there could be significant home loss.”
Those worries played out this year on Aug. 18, when blistering heat, low humidity and strong winds converged to create the worst fire weather of the year.
Then, a spark west of Medical Lake ignited a catastrophic wildfire.
In the 15 minutes it took Rohrbach, the fire chief of Spokane County District 3, to drive to the fire, 30-foot flames were racing through a field of unharvested wheat and straight toward town.
Smoke filled the sky, changing color as fire reached trees and buildings.
Within hours, hundreds of homes were destroyed and thousands of people evacuated.
The Washington and Oregon wildfire risk assessment done by Stratton in 2018 showed Spokane County had 58,409 homes at risk, the most in either state.
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With such numbers in the back of his mind, Rohrbach and other officials are thankful the fire wasn’t worse.
Fighting an inferno
Conditions that day required more firefighters on duty than normal. And yet, by the time crews rushed to the spot on Gray Road where the fire started at about 12:30 p.m., the flames were already massive and moving fast.
They called for more help, doubling the number of firefighters.
With winds gusting, initial attack aircraft couldn’t take off. Firefighters were able to work the sides of the fire, but the leading edge of the blaze couldn’t be controlled.
The first 911 calls came from people who spotted smoke from afar, a common occurrence during wildfire season, said Cassidy Haas, fire dispatch supervisor for Spokane Region Emergency Communications.
“So for us, it took a few minutes for it to really turn into something other than a normal fire in fire dispatch,” Haas said. “It was just ‘OK, we’re going to dispatch a bunch of crews and they’re going to go try to find it.’ “
Then all of a sudden, the board in the 911 call center next door lit up with dozens of calls in the queue. That’s when call-taker Raegan Hays knew the fire was bad.
“When you see that, you know it’s a big fire,” Hays said.
The first evacuation notice was issued at 1:30 p.m. Within an hour, Haas sent out three more.
John Altheide, who lives with his wife, Cindy, and dogs Otis and Mason at the edge of the Medical Lake city limits, recalled leaving the gym in Airway Heights after a swim when he spotted a dark cloud of smoke.
The 66-year-old rushed home, calling friends along the way. He got that first evacuation notice and called his wife, who was out of town. She told him to get their wildfire check list off of the kitchen cork board and see how far down the list he could make it, but not to risk his life.
“When you’re done, you’re done,” Cindy remembers telling him. “Leave it behind.”
The next hour was full of rushed choices. His pickup truck or his more practical Toyota? Yes, to the important documents he could grab. No, to his collection of beer steins and his wife’s collection of cookie jars.
At 2:30 p.m., John knew it was time to go. The smoke was so thick, he couldn’t see across the street. He yelled to his neighbor to follow him out.
That’s when the neighbors’ young daughter yelled and refused to go — she wanted to go back inside her house where she felt safe.
When John Altheide turned around, he understood her panic — an orange glow exploded in the trees behind his house. The fire had arrived.
“It was just raining fire,” he said.
Spokane Valley Fire Department Capt. Duane Hughes and his crew had just been released from protecting Lakeland Village and its 210 residents with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Hughes, a 61-year-old who lives on nearby Silver Lake, was on his way to protect his own home when he saw the Altheides’ house after John and his neighbors had evacuated.
The couple had a wildfire assessment done by the Department of Natural Resources the summer before and got an A+. They had defensible space and fire-resistant siding and roofing. Hughes thought he could save the home.
Hughes and his crew fought the fire there for 45 minutes and thought they’d saved it when fire spread to the eaves.
“That was disheartening, because we spent probably 30 to 45 minutes on that house and just weren’t able to stop it,” Hughes said in August.
Weeks later, he tearfully stopped by the Altheides’ house to tell them about the attempt.
They were floored that Hughes stayed to try and save their house, while his own burned.
“That’s the definition of a hero,” John Altheide said.
‘Fast-forward and slow motion all at the same time’
Many people didn’t want to leave their homes as the fire approached, said Hays, who was talking 911 calls.
“Everybody that is close to the fire is very frantic,” she said.
One Medical Lake man called to tell Hays his house had caught fire. Hays could hear the fire crackling as the man pushed his collection of historic cars away from the flames.
The fire already had such a hold, he couldn’t run back inside to get the keys.
The man ended up hanging up, Hays said. She still wonders what happened to him and his cars.
On the day of the fire, 911 and Crime Check took 2,611 calls, compared to the daily average of 1,903 calls. All of those calls and the dispatching of first responders were handled by 36 people.
Shelton Legler watched on her dispatch screen as police officers and deputies flooded into the Medical Lake area to help with the evacuation effort.
Officers updated her, house by house, as she documented their progress.
“We need to know how many people are in that house, because we need to know the potential of how many bodies to come back and look for if you refuse to evacuate,” Legler said.
With her spare moments between documenting evacuations, Legler would call back people who needed help evacuating to give them reassurance.
She would tell them first responders were aware of their situation and units were coming as fast as possible.
Legler recalls calling back an older couple. The husband was heated in the first call, unable to move his bedbound wife.
When Legler called back, the wife answered.
“She is completely emotional. She is terrified,” Legler said. “She is asking me not to let her die.”
Ben Cabildo, who lived in a neighborhood on Silver Lake, had seen the smoke but was surprised when a deputy banged on his door saying to evacuate. He and his wife gathered up their dogs and fled.
They watched their home burn on their Ring camera as they escaped.
Medical Lake city administrator Sonny Weathers was having lunch at the Pizza Factory in town when he saw smoke.
“From that point, it was like the world was on fast-forward and slow motion all at the same time,” Weathers said.
He got a call from the public works director asking for help evacuating Waterfront Park.
Weathers helped clear people from the trails before it became clear the city’s water system needed constant attention to keep water flowing for firefighting efforts.
Public works employees had to adjust the system manually to maintain pressure as fire crews drained water from the system to fight the flames. They were able to prevent major damage to the system through a massive team effort, Weathers said.
Forward progress on the fire slowed with the winds but had not stopped by early Saturday morning, Rohrbach said. The blaze flared up again later that day.
At one point, 24 people had been reported missing. The Spokane County Sheriff’s Office put together a task force and had them all tracked down within just a few hours.
One person, 86-year-old Carl Grub, died in the blaze after crashing his truck near Waterfront Park. The Spokane County Medical Examiner’s Office found he died from smoke inhalation and burns.
Rohrbach worked from Friday morning until just after 2 a.m. Sunday when firefighters were finally able to stop the spread of fire.
Rohrbach, who rarely drinks coffee, indulged.
“I get a lot of mileage out of a couple cups,” he said.
While the Gray Fire was the main priority, at one point being designated the largest fire in the country, Rohrbach said the fire district managed 21 other emergencies in the first 24 hours of the blaze.
Comfort amid the ‘violence’
By the time Medical Lake Mayor Terri Cooper arrived at the makeshift command center at Medical Lake High School, the fire had reached the edge of the park and was headed toward the city.
“I knew then that we could probably lose the whole town,” Cooper said. “I think the uncertainty of not knowing what was burned and what wasn’t burned was just terrifying.”
After the fire’s front rushed by, Cooper was one of the first to get a look at areas already burned.
“It was traumatic to see the devastation,” she said, struggling to recognize streets she had driven a thousand times. “The word ‘violent’ came to mind.”
Cooper’s only relief was the massive response from area firefighters and law enforcement, with hundreds of people on scene within hours.
“It was comforting,” she said.
Once it was clear that the danger had passed, and the city had water and power service, Cooper pushed for residents to be able to return.
Days after the fire, Cooper and Weathers held their first community meeting.
“I remember that just blank stare of people who’ve lost everything,” Cooper said. “We’re just shell-shocked.”
The emergency response system worked well, with Washington State mobilizing a massive response in less than two hours after the fire was reported, officials said. Law enforcement descended on the region, helping evacuate thousands of people and preventing mass casualties.
Many of the residents in the area took precautions to protect their homes from wildfires, such as creating defensible space or choosing fire-resistant materials. But fire scientists say those measures are only as good as the houses that surround them.
And if the science says anything, it’s this, Rohrbach said, recalling his email: “The potential for this to happen again is high.”