Who among us is not calamity weary? If it’s not the Delta variant, it’s the Delta fire area. If it’s not off-the-charts air quality indices, it’s potential flash floods. Then there are the angry yellow jackets. They were just hanging out waiting for their outdoor picnic/barbecue food when they were smoked out by the wildfires. Most everyone I know has been stung. Personally, I am keyboarding with an extremely fat swollen hand from yesterday’s sting on the middle finger (apropos) — that along with a swollen leg from an earlier sting.
All this edginess can bring out the darker side of human nature. There are those who second-guess the fire teams, even berating or mocking their procedures. Some have taken advantage of evacuations to instigate tomfoolery in empty neighborhoods. Fortunately, the best side of human nature is far more prevalent.
Friends and neighbors and, in some cases, complete strangers have lent a helping hand — whether offering a place for evacuees to stay, caring for displaced livestock, reporting on what can be seen of properties from afar, and helping clean up around houses to prevent structure losses. An exemplar in this arena is Wolf Creek property owner Michael Chiu.
Like many fire information watchers, I first saw Michael Chiu’s posting on the Methow Valley Fire Information Facebook site. His comments were knowledgeable and informative with just the right dose of humor in a dire time. His photos of fire activity and his own helping hand activity brought clarity to the day-to-day changes of the Cedar Creek Fire.
When his July 30 post showed up, he wrote: “Hats off to the men and women working the fire. Dedication, experience and professionalism abound. Let’s not lose sight of what is possible and even reasonable. Expectations need to be realistic.” He offered a gentle reminder that we are on Mother Nature’s turf; she calls the shots. He relayed that this would be his last post for a while; he had matters elsewhere that he needed to attend to. I had to find out: Who is Michael Chiu?
After graduating from the University of Washington, he worked for the National Park Service, Chelan Ranger District, as a wildlands’ firefighter, and in law enforcement. Michael first skied into Mazama from British Columbia through Spanish Camp in 1981. He developed deep feelings and connection to the Methow Valley at that time.
He became interested in Firewise safety measures when he attended a local home tour that featured Firewise properties. While building his Wolf Creek home in 2016, he was conscientious about utilizing Firewise techniques. Adjacent to Michael’s property are several unoccupied nightly rental structures that have remote owners. As the Cedar Creek Fire bore down towards these buildings, Michael took it upon himself to do what he could to help prevent loss to the owners.
He made minor and temporary fire safety improvements for about 10 families and four additional outbuildings by removing flammables such as fiber doormats, brooms, leaves, propane tanks and lawn furniture. He hopes that what he calls his Firewise “proselytizing” will provide impetus for further preparations for future fire seasons.
Michael also volunteers for a disaster relief organization that was first started by veterans after the massive earthquake in Haiti in 2010. Team Rubicon is now an international disaster response nonprofit where volunteers (called “Gray Shirts” because of the T-shirts they wear) work alongside first responders to rapidly provide relief to communities in need.
Michael especially recalls the grief of Malden, Washington, residents when he volunteered for cleanup and recovery after flames consumed 80% of the town last year. “Dirty, dirty work with so much heartache,” he says. He would rather work a fire aftermath where preventative measures saved properties from a Malden disaster. He hopes to work with the organization and other agencies to apply Team Rubicon’s organizational horsepower to help properties especially in Okanogan County become Firewise.
By the count of 289 “likes” and 123 comments on his last post, Michael Chiu can rest assured that he has provided a valuable service to the Fire Information scrollers. Michael comments, “Nothing like a wildfire breathing down your neck to break the ice and meet neighbors and like-minded community members!” We will look forward to his future posts about Team Rubicon’s work.