Gordon Maxwell was running for his life the day he came to symbolize one of the most devastating disasters ever to hit the Inland Northwest.
It was Oct. 16, 1991, the day five years ago that whipping winds, downed power lines and tinder-dry vegetation combined to create a monster called Firestorm ‘91.
Two people died that day in the 93 fires that burned 51,000 acres across Eastern Washington and North Idaho.
One hundred-twenty homes were destroyed. Nearly $20 million in property was lost. Lives were forever altered.
Firestorm ‘91 ranks as one of the region’s worst disasters.
And it was Maxwell, an unknown 19-year-old cook at the 4 B’s restaurant in the Spokane Valley, who unwittingly became a symbol of that fiery day when he hurled himself over a barbed wire fence near Dishman-Mica and Mohawk roads, just ahead of a surging wall of fire.
His headlong flight from the flames was captured on film by the late Spokesman-Review photographer Kit King.
King’s photograph of Maxwell suspended upside-down over the fence with flames closing in ran on the front page of the paper the next day and became one of the enduring images of the disaster.
People still talk about it. Firefighters have the photograph in their scrapbooks or hanging on station walls.
The picture won King, who drowned in a fishing accident about one month after it was taken, several regional and national awards.
It became famous.
Maxwell, though, remained anonymous. His name never ran in the newspaper. Outside a small circle of friends and family, nobody knew who the “firefighter jumping over the fence” was.
Even today, people who were at Dishman-Mica and Mohawk roads with Maxwell that day can’t recall his name.
“I can see the guy’s face,” said Tim Archer, a firefighter with District 8 who was operating a pumper truck nearby the day of the fires. “We even gave him a water bottle afterwards. But I can’t remember who he was.”
It’s likely Archer and the others never knew. By his own admission, Maxwell was just another guy trying to beat back a hurricane of flames with a shovel.
On Tuesday - the eve of the five-year anniversary of Firestorm - Maxwell recalled the day he became a piece of the region’s collective history.
He said he had just gotten off from his job as a cook when a friend called and told him of the fires ripping through the area.
Scott Dragoo asked Maxwell if he wanted to go to the Valley’s Ponderosa subdivision to help man fire lines.
“Fighting fires was something I’d never done before, so it sounded kind of cool,” said Maxwell, now 24 and a cook at the Dewey, Cheatam & Howe restaurant on North Division. “It was also the right thing to do.”
So he grabbed a shovel and headed out.
Maxwell said he spent nearly five hours digging firebreaks near a horse ranch on Dishman-Mica Road.
“It was windy as all get-out that day,” he said. “With the wind, it was just so hard to get anything accomplished.”
The more than 4,000 firefighters battling blazes throughout the region contended with gusts that reached 62 mph that day.
Maxwell said he and about 20 others abandoned their efforts near the horse ranch and were heading back to the road when a huge gust drove a towering wall of fire toward them.
“That fire caught up to us in, like, four seconds,” he said. “We were running for our lives. It got real hot there for a few seconds.”
Maxwell said he made it over the fence safely, dug lines for a few more hours, went for pizza and headed home.
It was the last time he ever fought a fire.
Maxwell said he “must have got nine phone calls the next morning” when the photograph appeared in The Spokesman-Review.
He called the newspaper the next day to get a couple copies of the photograph, one of which now hangs on the wall of his home.
“I had my 15 minutes of fame, and now it’s done,” said Maxwell, who doesn’t seem to mind that until now he was never identified. “I was just in the right place at the right time. There were a lot of other people out there who didn’t get any credit at all.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color Photos; Map of major area fires
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