In June of 2015, I had the pleasure of meeting a homeowner in a most surprisingly inopportune way. Most of the homeowners I meet are through the usual fire prevention strategies: group mailings, door to door visits, or, as I prefer, personal introductions through neighbors. As many know in prevention education, finding those “spark plugs” in the community can be a very tedious task. In the case of this spark plug I didn’t have to try very hard or look very far, although I did not have a chance to discuss Firewise or wildfire preparedness with her like I would normally do. She was slightly preoccupied at the time. After all, being Incident Commander can be a pretty demanding task.
Jennifer Norton was working when she heard the familiar address roll over the scanner. The fire started when a resident started to burn weeds along a back hillside of steep terrain with substantial sage brush, and like many wildfires do, it spread out of control. Living outside the city limits, under county jurisdiction meant she had to sit patiently waiting. Her first priority was to her job as Shift Commander for the City of Yakima Fire Department. Her patience was fortunately only tested for a short time, as moments later her crew was called to respond to the second-alarm fire.
Jennifer’s home was also home to three goats, four chickens and a retired 14 year old fire dog named Wesley. Her neighbors and mother-in-law were able to move the animals from their outdoor shelter into her home. Most living rooms are not intended to house agricultural animals and, as you can imagine, they severely lacked in household manners. Like many instances in wildfire, it was a situation none would expect or could truly prepare for. Although Jennifer was thinking of her home and the safety of her animals, she was more concerned for her neighbors and mother-in-law on site. She knew they only had one way out. “It was such a fast moving fire…our law enforcement and firefighters were not able to get in front of it to tell those people.” It was a classic case of resources available and fighting the clock.
Not only was Jennifer trying to help neighbors evacuate safely, she was also implementing incident command protocols and guiding brush crews where they needed to be. She and her neighbor had taken initiative to complete some Firewise landscaping months before, which she believes ultimately saved their homes. This preemptive fuels reduction within the home ignition zone allowed the fire to move around their homes. This is one incident she will remember very well.
It has been just over a year since the wildfire consumed two homes, severely damaged three others, and burnt over 100 acres. Jennifer and several other neighbors, with assistance from Naches Heights Fire District No. 9 and Yakima County Fire Marshal’s Office, have taken the first few steps to become a Nationally Recognized Firewise Community. Their board has also recently applied for a grant from the Department of Natural Resources to complete some of these Firewise improvements their community has pre-planned for.
All things considered, they are doing what they did last year: coming together as a neighborhood, but this time much sooner. Whether you are a Shift Commander, Prevention Specialist, or a homeowner – first and foremost you are part of a neighborhood. We are seeing it is not just our own homes that are being affected by wildfire; entire neighborhoods and communities are being affected. We should be shifting from our own home responsibility, to our own neighborhood responsibility. We all have neighbors just like Jennifer. For the sake of their lives alone, it is time to stop limiting ourselves to being just homeowners. Let’s work on being better neighbors as well.