July 12, 2008 in City

Lessons of ’91 eased evacuations

Experience credited in Ponderosa
By The Spokesman-Review
Christopher Anderson photo

Pat Milton, left, and Keith and Gina Stacchino watch news reports Friday about the wildfire that forced them to spend the night in the Red Cross shelter at University High School.
(Full-size photo)

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Nick and Joan Wolfe have fled the Ponderosa neighborhood before. It went more smoothly this time.

The couple evacuated their Woodruff Road home during the firestorm of October 1991, and it wasn’t pretty.

“It was utter chaos,” Nick Wolfe said of his experience 17 years ago when fire destroyed 15 homes in his Ponderosa neighborhood while sightseers blocked the only two roads out.

It was a different story Thursday night, when residents again were told to leave their homes.

“All facets of the county response ran really well this time,” Wolfe said. “They are becoming really professional at handling it.”

Sgt. Dave Reagan, Spokane County Sheriff’s Office spokesman, estimated 200 people evacuated from neighborhoods south and southeast of the Dishman Hills Natural Area on Thursday evening.

On Friday, law enforcement and fire officials allowed Ponderosa residents to return to their neighborhood, but only if they could prove they lived there, Reagan said. Businesses that had a legitimate reason to enter the area also were allowed in. Some relatives of residents were not.

By 10 a.m., vehicles were backed up at Schafer and Bowdish roads. Cars carrying prized possessions, clothes, even mounted game trophies, waited to enter Ponderosa as law officers checked their addresses.

Two neighboring areas remained closed as firefighters continued to battle blazes – the area west of Dishman-Mica Road between 16th and 24th avenues and all of the Park Hills/Park Meadows area.

Two factors contributed to a calm and orderly evacuation, officials and residents said. First, many residents had been evacuated before and knew to take the order seriously. Police reported no resistance to the order to leave.

In Ponderosa, “I think there is a community memory of that ’91 fire because we lost homes and we lost animals,” Reagan said.

Additionally, an emergency response training exercise took place May 13 that involved at least 100 officials from the county, state and private sector. The target area of the exercise: the Ponderosa neighborhood.

“We have practiced our wildland situation,” said Bill Clifford, Spokane Valley Fire Department deputy fire marshal. “We followed that plan. It went well, but if you can imagine how you feel when someone tells you to leave your home, it’s difficult. People don’t want to leave their homes. We face exactly the same situation every time.”

When the order came about 8:30 p.m., the Wolfes knew just what to do. They packed up their photo albums, important papers, a bag of clothes and their two Siamese cats and towed out their travel trailer.

Dishman-Mica Road was closed, and traffic was directed east. The family spent the night in their trailer parked behind Horizon Middle School, and in the morning they were directed to a shelter at University High School, where about 136 evacuees had spent the night.

Nick Wolfe visited their home Friday morning; it was still standing. Cars in the area were covered in ash.

As in 1991, there remain only two practical ways to enter or exit Ponderosa, Schafer and Bowdish roads. Residents have raised that issue up with county officials as development continues in the area.

“The same thing happened in ’91, getting everything out,” said Harriet Dahl, 74. Thursday night, she and Doyle Chalcraft, 68, who live in the lower Ponderosa area, drove their motor home to the high school parking lot and spent the night.

“I thought it would be jammed-packed, but it was reasonable,” said Chalcraft.

Reagan said the fact that only two roads lead from Ponderosa was not a significant impediment to evacuation Thursday.

“We play the cards we are dealt. There is limited access in a number of areas in the urban interface,” Reagan said, citing the Five Mile area north of Spokane as another example. “People want to live in places that look rural.”

Fire officials and residents said gawkers were a problem Thursday night, but less than in 1991.

“We had people parking on the road to watch the fire,” Clifford said. “That slowed it down both for people trying to get out and trucks trying to get in.”

The evacuation was not without some hitches.

Misty Rodriguez, who lives on Park Road, said she called the Fire Department after the smoke began to worry her.

“I asked, ‘Should we be evacuating? I am seeing smoke,’ ” Rodriguez recalled.

“The lady who answered the phone said, ‘All the firefighters are up there, and what we’ve been told is if we need to evacuate it will be on the news.’ So we just waited for the evacuation to be announced on the news.”

When her family heard the announcement, they were out of the house in three minutes, but “we couldn’t get down our hill because (the fire) had already crossed Park Road,” she said.

Her family and about 25 others waited in a meadow at the top of the hill until the fire burned over their only road out.

“The fire burned up, burned a couple houses right in front of us, burned around and then back,” Rodriguez said. “Then it was clear enough for us to go down. It took an hour or an hour and a half to do that. And then we were allowed to go down.”

Staff writer Thomas Clouse contributed to this report.

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