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Tim Martinez: Columbia River athletes spring into action to knock down fire

Wenger, Holen help nearby home owner put out burning greenhouse fire

By Tim Martinez, Columbian Assistant Sports Editor
Published: April 4, 2024, 7:05pm
2 Photos
Columbia River senior Eli Wenger competes in the pole vault in a meet against Woodland and Hockinson at Columbia River High School on Tuesday, March 26, 2024.
Columbia River senior Eli Wenger competes in the pole vault in a meet against Woodland and Hockinson at Columbia River High School on Tuesday, March 26, 2024. (Tim Martinez/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Eli Wenger is one of the more versatile athletes on the Columbia River High School track and field team.

But the senior recently displayed a new aspect to his versatility not normally called into action on the track — fire fighting.

During a practice at River late last month, Wenger noticed a plume of smoke coming from one of the houses across 99th Street.

“We were (pole) vaulting and we saw some smoke from one of the houses,” Wenger said. “At first, we thought it was just a backyard fire. But then it got really big, really fast.”

Without a second thought, Wenger jumped into action.

“I started running over there and told some teammates to call 911,” he said. “And by this time, the smoke was really billowing with dark smoke.”

Wenger was followed over to the house by another teammate, senior thrower Alex Holen. When Wenger and Holen arrived, they saw that a greenhouse behind one of the homes was on fire.

The homeowner had a garden hose on the fire, and a neighbor had another hose on it. But they could not suppress the fire.

“When Alex and I ran over, one of the neighbors gave us fire extinguishers,” Wenger said. “So we jumped the fence and helped put it out. It was a communal effort. … The fire department showed up after we had all extinguished it, and they were like ‘you guys did a good job.’ ”

Wenger’s effort did not come as a surprise to those around the River track program. The senior typically does a good job no matter what he does.

Wenger is best known as a pole vaulter. He placed third at the Class 2A state meet last year in the event, clearing a personal best of 14 feet.

Wenger matched that mark at a home meet against Woodland and Hockinson on March 27 and narrowly missed at 14-6.

“It was a new pole,” he said. “I had never used it before in competition. I’ve used it once before in practice. I was trying to adjust to that.”

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The pole vault was one of four events Wenger participated in during the meet. He first ran the 1,600 meters, then went to the pole vault. After that, he finished up by running the 200 meters and then the 4×400 relay.

Speaking from personal experience, I can tell you there aren’t a lot of athletes who compete in the pole vault and 1,600 meters in the same meet. As a general rule, distance runners aren’t known for their upper-body strength, or dexterity, for that matter.

But Wenger isn’t like most athletes.

“I usually run the 400, but decided to switch it up today,” he said. “I ran cross country in the fall, so I have the stamina. I decided to give the 1,600 a try.”

At a meet earlier this spring, he dabbled a little in the javelin throw.

But his forte is the pole vault. And Wenger has his eyes set on the Columbia River school record this spring.

“The school record is 15-6, and I’m trying to break that,” he said. “It seems high, I know, but I think I can do it. It’s just a lot of technical stuff I’ve got to get down.”

Well, if his first foray into the technical aspect of fire suppression is any indication, it would be hard to doubt that Wenger won’t reach his goal.


Tim Martinez is the assistant sports editor/prep coordinator for The Columbian. He can be reached at tim.martinez@columbian.com, 360-735-4538 or follow @360TMart on Instagram and X (formerly Twitter).