“To have 74 acres burn in the middle of town without losing a single house is a pretty amazing feat.” That’s what Eric Quinney, Uinta County Fire Warden, told me when we talked about Evanston’s July 4 fire.
Keep in mind, Evanston’s fire department is almost entirely volunteer. EFD has five full-time firefighters and 45 volunteers. So, when fireworks started a small grass fire just east of Crane Ave., men were called away from their family celebrations all over the county. “They are the real heroes of yesterday’s fire,” said Quinney.
The fire department monitors conditions and works with the mayor’s office to decide if a fireworks ban is necessary. Their job is made more difficult because wind conditions can change minute-by-minute. In addition, intangible values like community-building, Wyoming culture and tourism must be considered.
This year, one incautious moment happened just at the windiest part of an unusually windy day. Wednesday’s fire gave Evanston residents a sobering look at how quickly an accident can explode into a raging fire.
Between the uphill slope of the terrain and the strong westerly winds the fire was out of control immediately. One eyewitness reported that within 10 minutes the fire had raced to the top of Twin Ridge. From there, the flames bore down on the Sioux townhouses.
The last large grass fire that we had in Evanston happened 30 years ago to the day. That one began at Yellow Creek estates and burned a swath over Twin Ridge all the way to Hayden Avenue. It came close enough to houses to melt some vinyl siding, but none were lost.
Now, 30 years later, the first structure in the fire’s path was a tiny house just south of Sioux Drive. It looked to be a goner as the fire reached the road and came within a few dozen yards of the townhouses. But the quick-working firefighters were already protecting the structure and fighting back.
Diana Ottley first saw the flames when the fire topped the ridge. At that time, the wind was driving it toward the corner of City View and Sioux, away from any danger to the Ottleys’ house. But without warning, the wind changed.
The fire turned on a dime and started racing up the draw in a southeasterly direction. By now heavy equipment was on hand to scrape off the dry sage brush to make fire-breaks. But the wind was so strong, they barely even slowed it down.
Diana’s husband, Tib, did what every other homeowner was instinctively doing. He got out the garden hose and started spraying. “I knew it wouldn’t make any difference, but I did it anyway,” he laughed. He was in good company. From Crestview to Troy Court, helpless homeowners were doing the same.
Only 45 minutes after Diane had first seen the flames, Evanston Fire Cpt. Tim Overy told them it was time to leave. The fire had come within 4 feet of the house down the hill and was now surrounding Ottleys’ on three sides, also threatening others on Troy Court.
Diana had already taken their cats to safety. Now, all that was left to do was drive away and watch from afar as their house burned to the ground. What do you take at that moment? How would you feel? What do you think?
For everyone who evacuated, it was different. Some grabbed photo albums, others important documents. Some packed underwear and animals. Tib and Diana just drove away. When I spoke with them later, they reflected on all the things filled with meaning that they left behind.
On the west wall of the living room sits a desk with the family Bible in the drawer. Together they once survived a Kansas tornado that struck the home of Diana’s grandmother. There was a wall of family photos and a room of memories of their lost son, Tib. The flames forced them to leave all behind. “If I had to do it again,” said Tib, “I would have grabbed my son’s guitar.”
But while the flames were driving away homeowners, the volunteers were not done with the fight. By now there were nearly 50 men hauling hoses, digging fire-breaks, running to keep ahead of the flames. Young and old, retired and active — all showed up to lend a hand.
Our volunteer fire department has been excellently trained, and it showed. Working together they pushed the limits of their bodies and the limits of safety. They knew what a home means, and they lingered in unsafe areas fighting the flames until the very last minute.
Not only the volunteers, but people and businesses all over town pitched in to help. People came out to help drag heavy hoses. Walmart donated food and bottled water. Ellingford Brothers, Lindley Construction, Seale Oilfield and S Bar S Trucking all donated the use of heavy equipment to help.
Neighboring departments in Bear River and Bridger Valley joined in the fight. Even Rock Springs dispatched a crew. Uinta County Road and Bridge, Uinta County Sheriff’s Office, Evanston Police Department and the City of Evanston were all coordinated by three amazing ladies working furiously at 911 dispatch.
The point of this giant spear was now focused on the Ottley house. Thirty-foot flames were at the base of the house, licking the eaves on the second floor. Breaking safety protocol, volunteers were lying on their backs under the flame, directing water at the fire in a desperate attempt to save the house.
Tib and Diana watched from a couple of hundred yards away. They could not recall any specific thought — only a deep sinking feeling, knowing that their home would soon be ashes.
But suddenly, the wind reversed. Within minutes, the firefighters were winning the battle. Despite all their training and efforts, it took an act of God to give them success. Jesus said, “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth” (John 3:8 KJV).
At a moment like this, we are reminded that the most important things in life are not in our control. Mayor Kent Williams and the county commissioners can make decisions. Cpt. Overy can direct the crews. Dozens of volunteers can put themselves in harm’s way. But Jesus directs the wind.
Before long, the supporting crew, en route from Rock Springs, was turning for home. Gawkers who had driven to overlooks around town to watch the fight started their cars and headed back to their picnics.
A few were disappointed that the evening fireworks were canceled. They didn’t understand that every available firefighter in Uinta County was scattered across Twin Ridge and exhausted from the fight. There was no one left to call in case another fire should break out. And their work was far from over.
While Evanston went back to their parties and cookouts, all the volunteers remained vigilant, watching for flare-ups and hot spots until well past midnight. Then, and only then, did these weary heroes roll up their hoses and drag themselves home to their families.
As the sun rose over Evanston the next morning, it glinted off Captain Overy’s red pickup perched on the charred ridge. Long before dawn, he was standing sentinel over the town. Many drove the streets, examining the battlefield. Tib and Diana were simply thankful that no one was hurt.
Soon our conversation turned to family and faith, to community and friendships. The fire brought danger to the town, but its aftermath brought clarity to our thoughts and thankfulness to our hearts.
I, for one, will be translating my thankfulness into a donation for the Evanston Fire Department. I hope many others will do the same.
Jonathan Lange is an LCMS pastor in Evanston and Kemmerer and serves the Wyoming Pastors Network. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow his blog at OnlyHuman-JL.blogspot.com.