Valley teens protect neighboring home from Methow Street blaze
Five members of the Liberty Bell High School football team were throwing a ball around at Twisp Park on the evening of Aug. 6 when they saw smoke.
One of the young men was 17-year-old Abel Curtis, who has more than 40 hours of firefighter training under his belt, not to mention a lifetime with a career firefighter for a father. Curtis noticed that the smoke was white, which suggested to him that this might just be a burn pile — illegal, but not alarming.
Then the cloud of smoke turned black. Curtis knew what that meant, too.
“Quickly, it became apparent that it was a house,” he said.
Curtis jumped behind the wheel of his pickup truck. His friends got in, too, with three riding in the bed. Someone who was watching them called Curtis’ mother, Becky, to tell her that her son and his friends weren’t driving safely.
What this concerned family friend couldn’t know was that Curtis and his buddies—Quinn Wengerd, Jed McMillan, Jake McMeans and Caleb Simmons — weren’t looking for trouble. They were looking to help.
The five teenagers are widely credited for saving a garage on top of a hill directly above the burning house at 203 Methow St. The fire, which started shortly before 6:30 p.m. in a shed behind the Methow Street house, raced up the hill toward homes on Lincoln Street.
“I have no doubt that those kids saved that garage from being burned,” said Aaron Studen, a Twisp Town Council member and one of the first citizens on the scene.
The owner of the property the boys defended said what they did was “amazing.”
“Whatever came up the hill consumed right up to my garage,” said Lou Kallery, a retired teacher who taught English at Liberty Bell High School and now resides at 206 Lincoln St.
“They put it out, bless their hearts,” Kallery said.
Line of defense
The fire advanced to within 4 feet of the garage. It was fueled by pallets, leaves and other yard waste — even a large tree stump — that had been dumped down the slope between the line of houses on Lincoln Street and the home of Mark Tesch and Michelle Jerome on Methow Street.
A fire investigator determined the blaze was caused by the spontaneous combustion of rags soaked with a volatile wood finish, Tesch said.
The five boys, along with several neighbors, worked feverishly for half an hour, until a fire truck was stationed above the slope and could throw a much larger volume of water on the fire.
“Jed McMillan, him and I jumped the fence and found garden hoses and shovels,” Curtis said. “We stationed ourselves at the middle [Kallery’s] house. We started the fire line.”
Curtis and Wengerd, the two members of the group who were interviewed for this story, learned how to dig a fire line several years ago as members of Boy Scout Troop 51.
At first, Curtis said, they used shovels to scratch a thin line through the soil 4 or 5 inches deep, down to more burn-resistant mineral soil. When that was completed, they had time to widen the line to 2 1/2 or 3 feet.
While the group dug and pointed hoses at the advancing flames, electrical lines connected to the house collapsed to the ground. The live wires made a sound like firecrackers and sparked brightly, like a welding arc, Curtis and Wengerd said.
They kept a wary eye on a large propane tank near a rear corner of the house. The tank’s relief valve occasionally vented in the heat.
“Every time it would vent, we’d duck around the corner. Once it stopped, we’d come back around and keep going,” Wengerd said.
The boys said they heard several small explosions. Those likely were cans of spray paint that had been stored in the shed.
They felt waves of heat and had to pull back from the fire occasionally, to take breaks.
“There was so much heat, we couldn’t walk down the hill without being seared,” Curtis said. “A big plume of smoke came up, so black, I had to go down on the ground and” — Curtis cupped his hands over his face to show what he did next.
For the most part, the boys were fortunate the wind was blowing downriver — left to right, from their perspective. They were able to stand their ground.
Curtis and Wengerd, 16, have a lot in common. Both are homeschooled while taking some classes at Liberty Bell. They’re both on the high school football and baseball teams. Their friendship stems from football, which both have played since seventh grade. Wengerd’s football history dates back to his Pee Wee days, when he was 8 years old.
They have the same summer job, working for Impel Construction. And both, by some small twist of fate, responded to the Rendezvous Fire on July 31 that burned 175 acres north of Winthrop.
Curtis and Wengerd were at a job site for Impel, not far from Rendezvous Road. After that fire started, Curtis went to a friend’s ranch and helped load saddles and tack into a trailer for possible evacuation. Wengerd lives a mile or a mile and a half from the fire, so he went to a hilltop near his home to keep an eye on the fire and see what he might do to protect his family’s property. As it turned out, the fire didn’t advance in their direction.
Wengerd, a junior, is thinking about enlisting in the U.S. Coast Guard after his schooling is done.
As for Curtis, he may have been born a firefighter.
“When I was 4, I was putting together a drip torch,” he said.
His father Charlie Curtis was an engine boss for the U.S. Forest Service and in the private sector. He owns a brush truck and contracts with agencies to support firefights across the western U.S., under the business name One Foot Forestry.
Abel Curtis, a senior, said eventually he’d like to work with his hands or do service work.
“Firefighting is cool,” he said. “It’s an action where you can see immediately the good effects of what you did, much like police work and Coast Guard.”
He knows for sure what at least one of his summer jobs will be next year.
“I’m going to fight fires next summer with my dad,” Curtis said.