Sometimes history focuses on the losses, like the number of buildings destroyed, the financial toll of a tragedy, and, most importantly, the lives lost. And while it is important to take in the gravity of these situations, it’s equally important to celebrate what was saved.
An estimated 17,400 people had been at the World Trade Center on the day of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and some 87% of them were safely evacuated, thanks in large part to the first responders’ heroic efforts.
When passengers of United Flight 93 knew the country was under attack and their aircraft was hijacked, Todd Beamer and others took action saying, “Let’s Roll.” Flight 93 was only twenty minutes of flying time away from its suspected target – the White House or the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. – and the remarkably brave men and women who died that morning in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania saved an incalculable number of lives that day.
As I travelled around Pierce County this week, I thought a lot about what was saved on that September 11 nineteen years ago, and what was saved this week.
Since late Monday night, firefighters and first responders have saved so many homes and businesses. There are still 4,600+ structures under evacuation orders and, sadly, several families have lost their homes. But, most importantly, no one has lost their life, and that is thanks in large part to the first responders’ heroic efforts once again.
By 5:30 a.m. last Tuesday, I knew we were in for it. My first stop was the Bonney Lake Police Department, where their Emergency Operations Center (EOC) was set up. I checked in with Police Chief Bryan Jeter and City Administrator John Vodopich on the status of what became known as the Sumner Grade Fire. At that point, it was still burning brush and trees on the hillside, but not threatening homes.
My next stop was the Graham Fire Department (at 240th Street E & 154th Ave E). Our Pierce County Mobile EOC was on site and I met with Pierce County Sheriff Sergeant Trent Stephens and Graham Fire & Rescue Assistant Chief Steve Richards. This fire had already burned 5 homes, numerous outbuildings and many vehicles. The community had been evacuated and they were deploying fire units throughout the relatively flat and mostly large residential lots – at the intersection of two power lines. The street was lined with fire units waiting to join the battle. Besides Graham Fire & Rescue, Central Pierce, Orting Valley Fire, Gig Harbor Fire, and JBLM Fire were onsite to lending a hand.
I went next to Thun Field where I caught a ride with Deputies Robert Malloy, Jeff Laeuger, and Emily Holznagel on the Sheriff’s plane. We got a bird’s eye view of these two fires as well as the Grass Mountain Fire between Enumclaw and Greenwater. Using their infrared cameras, they could identify hotspots, count structures and give the ground commanders a very different perspective on the fires. We bounced around a bit with the wind and the hot air from the fires. As I departed and thanked the crew, I felt pretty good. The Graham Fire seemed to be nearly contained and the Sumner Grade Fire had clearly defensible firebreaks – including SR 410, Myers Road among others. Had I only known…
By early afternoon, a strong wind had picked up and the Sumner Grade Fire leapt across all four lanes of SR 410 and was threatening a housing development. East Pierce Fire Chief Bud Backer and his team were stretched thin. We had a Pierce County Roads crew there with a bulldozer supporting the efforts – they had done good work in the morning, but their firebreak was no match for the high winds.
While more fire teams arrived and National Guard helicopters dropped water on hotspots, the Bonney Lake PD and our deputies helped evacuate residents including Chief Jeter’s house. At our Pierce County EOC, Fire Marshall Warner Webb and the DEM team were coordinating support for both fires and redirected their call center from supporting our COVID response to answering questions from people being evacuated.
By the time I left the fire command post at the base of the SR 410 Hill at 7 p.m., fresh fire units were arriving from King and Kitsap Counties. On the way home, I checked in with the Central Pierce Fire team at the Tiffany’s Skate Inn electrical fire in Puyallup!
I’ve been Executive during the tragic derailment of Amtrak 501 in 2017, the Snowmageddon incident of 2019, and now the COVID pandemic and historic fires of 2020. I have consistently seen the very definition of teamwork, leadership, and selflessness from all of our emergency response teams. And I can say with complete confidence that there is no place else on earth I would choose to be in an emergency other than Pierce County.