A neighbor warned us with these words when we purchased property in Mazama more than 10 years ago: “It’s not the end of the Earth, but you can see it from here.” Another neighbor gave us a picture of the house we bought covered to the eaves in snow. Undaunted, we thought – like many newcomers looking through rose-colored glasses – “How hard can it be?”
This past week with snow sliding off the roof, landing with a thud, leaving a 4-foot high mountain of ice chunks and concrete-like snow, we knew we were beaten once again by the forces of nature. Fortunately, with the aid of local online resources, we found hardy, hard-working shovelers for hire. With their young, strong bodies, they heaved the snow onto the ever-increasing piles all around and once again we could walk out our doors.
Fellow Mazamans recently brought another hazard to my attention. What happens if you have a house fire in the heart of winter snow? Midge Cross and Scott Johnston experienced such an unfortunate event the morning of Dec. 24, Christmas Eve, when a fire erupted in the crawl space of their home. Okanogan County Fire District 6 responded with its crew of volunteers.
Dave Crosby was one of the first volunteers on the scene. He spoke about the initial challenge in any fire alarm is “finding the fire.” With so many serpentine roads, narrow lanes, icy hills, our beautiful valley presents difficult challenges to the firefighters in just getting to the fire. The blue reflective address signs you see in rural parts of the valley, which can be purchased for $15 from the fire district, are the first line of defense for a homeowner to assure they can be located.
Once this house afire was located, Dave said the driveway was narrow – cleared for a Subaru, not a fire engine – and the 35-foot engine slipped off the blown path and got stuck. Midge said during the time the engine was stuck, the firefighters were “toting extinguishers and other firefighting resources” down the driveway. She cannot express enough her respect and gratitude to the volunteers who give “their time, energy and bodies for the good of the community.” She was “impressed and encouraged by their quiet professionalism and kindness.” The Cross/Johnston house was saved, even though not habitable at this point due to the damage and smoke smell.
It turns out, due to the location of this fire in the crawl space, a drained garden hose and frost-free faucet that Scott made available were more useful than the 1 ¾-inch fire hoses with their high pressure and volume. Water is a fire’s nemesis. Here, again, the upper valley has a challenge that is being addressed by a group of concerned citizens. Currently, water sources west of Winthrop have been limited to “natural” water features such as irrigation ditches, the Methow River, assorted ponds/lakes, and a few relatively low-volume hydrants in private housing developments. In the winter, most of these resources are either not available or very difficult to access, requiring the tenders to drive to Winthrop to fill up. When time matters, this is problematic.
This past fall, District 6 successfully tested a 30-year-old existing well on Okanogan County property in Mazama, establishing the well as a possible location for a high-volume water source for fighting upper valley fires. The well can provide upwards of 700 gallons per minute, filling a 3,000-gallon tender or tanker in less than five minutes. Access to this kind of water is a “game changer for firefighting in the north valley” according to Russ Stamps, District 6 assistant chief.
The cost of this project is expected to be approximately $75,000. The test itself, which cost $17,500, was financed with donations from local residents including the Mazama Fire Department Association and individual firefighters from the Mazama Station. (Remember, these people are volunteers!) More money is needed to make this water source a reality.
Alan Fahnestock, a Mazama firefighter and volunteer project manager for the well development, said “Fighting fire can be a pretty spooky business and it’s even spookier when you’re down to a couple hundred gallons of water and know that your next supply tender is still 20 minutes out. I’m going to be looking for money to get this done. It will save houses and help us catch wildfires quicker.” Alan requests you contact him with contributions, ideas on how to raise money, or “simple encouragement” at email@example.com.