Two tales of firefighter heroism demonstrate how close we came to a larger disaster
By Ann McCreary
Two local residents who witnessed potential turning points in the fight against the Twisp River Fire expressed gratitude and admiration this week for the professionalism and hard work of firefighters who saved homes, property and perhaps the town of Twisp.
Firefighters from Okanogan County Fire District 6 drew praise along with firefighters from around the nation who arrived to battle the wildfire and prevent it from causing further devastation.
“Highly trained hotshot crews and smokejumpers saved Twisp,” said John Doran, who lives on the Walking D Ranch just north of the Twisp town limits.
On Wednesday evening (Aug. 19), Doran made preparations to fight the fire and watched as flames crested the top of a steep hillside on ranch property about a mile north of the pastures and barn visible from Highway 20.
The fire, which ignited earlier in the day more than 6 miles west, began moving steadily southward along the face of the hillside in the direction of Twisp.
“By the time it hit our family property … the humidity was up and it was creeping and crawling. Hotshot and jumper crews used that to their advantage,” said Doran, who worked as a firefighter and smokejumper for 21 years.
Early in the morning on Thursday (Aug. 20), firefighters “started a precise, gridded burnout” on the south end of the hillside above the barn, Doran said.
Moving from the top of the hill downward, they created lines of fire that merged into each other, consuming vegetation in a controlled burn. Once a section was successfully burned, they moved on to another adjacent section and repeated the process.
“By burning the flash fuels, when the big fire got to the family property it slowed, and became a manageable fire. They were able to nicely shepherd the fire into a defensible position,” Doran said.
“They used the face of the mountain as the stopping ground,” he said. “If they had not been able to stop it when they did and the winds came up when it’s just yards away from the city of Twisp — I call that a save,” Doran said. “This was a killer fire.”
Doran said the successful burnout was conducted by a 20-man crew and eight smokejumpers, although he didn’t know where the firefighters were from. “I was told they put the eight jumpers on it to handle the technical end of the back burn,” he said.
“I cannot compliment the firefighters any higher. Collectively we have a lot to be thankful for and thankful we have well-trained resources available,” Doran said.
Anna Kominak credits local firefighters with Fire District 6, firefighters mobilized from other parts of the country, and an intense air assault, with saving her family’s home and, more important, preventing the fire from jumping Twisp River Road.
“They knew if that fire had gone down the road and crossed it would have gone up Poorman Creek … or towards Twisp,” Kominak said. “They saved our house, but that’s not why they were there.”
Kominak lives with her husband, Glenn, and their two children on a hill above Twisp River Road about a mile and a half from Twisp. The Kominaks also own adjacent property next to the road below their home at the base of a stretch of road known as the “Spokane grade.”
The battle to contain the blaze to the north side of Twisp River Road at the Kominaks’ began Wednesday afternoon, as the wind-driven fire made its run downriver toward Twisp.
“We got the word the fire was moving quickly and began taking things out of the house,” Kominak said. She took her children, David, 12, and Grace-ann, 10, with her to Pine Near RV Park in Winthrop, which the Kominaks own and operate.
“At some point things changed. Glenn called and said, ‘The fire is coming at us. I don’t know if we’re going to be able to stop it.’”
Along with a hotshot crew from Mississippi and a bulldozer called to the scene, dozens of community members came to fight the fire alongside Glenn and his brother Gary. Among the volunteers were Bill and Shorty White, Ray Campbell and Les Stokes, who brought water trucks to soak the area around the house, Kominak said.
Many other community members came to help dig lines around the house. “Glenn figured there were about 50 guys there Wednesday night,” Kominak said. By early morning on Thursday, it appeared they had won the fight.
On Thursday afternoon, Kominak was standing outside her house talking with Twisp Police Chief Paul Budrow, who had dropped by, when she saw fire erupt again in nearby vegetation. The fire was moving fast in strong winds. Budrow radioed for help and District 6 responded within minutes.
The firefighters stopped, however, at the property owned by the Kominaks below their home. Kominak was unaware that fire was raging there and had engulfed a three-bay garage and a barn where the family stored valuable tools, lumber and equipment for Glenn’s tile and carpentry work.
Firefighters saved a rental house on the property and a newly-built shop, but the barn and garage were lost, along with the belongings stored inside.
Kominak said firefighters “made a stand” at the property, fighting to prevent the blaze from crossing the road and heading up Poorman Creek. She heard firefighters say, “We have got to stop this fire because if it goes past here it’s going to be doom.”
“That was the whole concern … about it getting to the other side,” District 6 Chief Don Waller said this week. “There is a huge fuel load on that side of the river.”
District 6 brought three structure engines, two tenders, two urban interface rigs and two brush rigs, as well as the district’s professional command staff to fight the fire, Waller said.
“We were pretty much fighting the fires around the structures and others were picking up the spot fires,” Waller said.
Air tankers were called in and made as many as eight retardant drops, Kominak said. Large swaths of the property, nearby vegetation and the road surface remain a surreal coral color in the wake of the fight.
“When the helicopters came it started making a difference,” Kominak said. The helicopters dipped water out of nearby Dead Horse Lake and dumped bucket after bucket on the fires both on the lower property and around the Kominak home.
District 6 crews were at the scene for more than three hours, Kominak said. “They need a gold medal for what they did there,” she said.
The Kominaks lost valuable reclaimed lumber, antique carpentry tools, machinery used in Glenn’s tile work, materials and equipment that were gathered to remodel the rental home, motorcycles, snowmobiles, bicycles, and thousands of dollars worth of coin-operated laundry equipment that they had purchased in order to expand the family-owned laundromat in Twisp.
“I can’t begin to estimate the losses,” Kominak said.
Nevertheless, she has nothing but praise for the firefighters, especially from District 6, who fought the fire and prevented it from spreading.
“They really deserve recognition,” Kominak said.