It was a hot Sunday, so Peter and Teri Jo Christianson, who live near Badger Lake, decided to spend the day on the water.
Little did they know that just hours later the hill with their home and barns on top would be engulfed in flames.
Badger Lake, south of Cheney, is home to a small number of year-round residents. A mobile home park near the water has 130 spaces but just a few dozen permanent residences with the majority of homeowners using their properties as lake houses, Teri Jo said.
“I have never seen so many boats on the lake, but it was 105 and it’s a Sunday, with COVID going on you can’t go anywhere – so people are on the lake,” Peter said.
The area was busy last weekend with a nearly record -breaking heat wave and COVID-19 closing many of the typical summertime activities.
Peter retired earlier this year after decades as an air traffic controller. The couple spent their new free time planting a large garden full of sunflowers and berry bushes. With Teri Jo’s parents just down the gravel driveway, the Christiansons were making the best of a socially distant summer.
On Sunday, a few of the Christianson’s six children and grandchildren came over along with some extended family members, who were planning to get married on the family’s 50 acres and wanted to talk about wedding plans.
The group got off the water at about 2 p.m. Sunday and headed up to the house to barbecue.
One of the Christianson children was busy building a fence near a small barn for her horse, Clancy.
Peter was manning the grill while Teri Jo was in the kitchen. She got an alert on her phone saying a wildfire had broken out nearby.
This was no surprise to the couple whose property was narrowly missed by the Watermelon Hill fire in 2014.
Teri Jo went to the kitchen window that overlooks the valley below, only to see smoke on a hill across the lake near a friend’s home. She called 911 and reported what would be known as the Williams Lake Fire at about 5 p.m.
There was also visible smoke below the Christianson’s home but it looked far away, the couple said.
“You could see fire out in the distance, and I was like, that’s really weird there’s like three fires all starting simultaneously,” Teri Jo said.
Despite the distance between them and the fire, Teri Jo and the other adults in attendance went out to the garden to water the area.
The Christiansons had two barns – one a former chicken coop the other a “boat barn” – where the couple kept their boat, tools and equipment.
“I said ‘Get sprinklers out behind the barn over here,’ ” Terri Jo said. “All the adults go start pulling hoses out … we couldn’t find enough sprinklers so they’re hand hosing it.”
Meanwhile, Peter is still manning the barbecue, not too worried about the fire moving their direction.
“I was thinking we’ve got a big enough green yard around it and these trees, we irrigate all the time so they’re nice and green and healthy,” Peter said.
The Christiansons have a fenced yard for their dogs around their house, which has a sprinkler system to keep it green.
As Teri Jo continued to water her garden and the brush near the barns, she decided to grab another sprinkler. When she returned to the field, flames had climbed up the nearby cliff and begun engulfing the Christianson’s field.
“I looked up and there are the flames right there,” Teri Jo said. “So, I came running in the house saying everybody get out now.”
At about the same time, a firefighter drove up the hill telling the family to evacuate.
“They grab the babies with no shoes or anything,” Teri Jo said. “I grabbed my purse; we grabbed all the dogs.”
With no way to transport Clancy, the family’s horse, Peter put the pony in the fenced yard.
Peter’s new truck was parked in the “boat barn” near the dry field that was now on fire.
He ran to his truck, and by the time he was pulling out of the area flames were coming under the back wall of the barn.
The family drove down the hill and out of the way of the fire, only to turn around and see the hill covered in smoke and flames.
Firefighters drove past the Christiansons on their way down the hill, arriving just in time to catch the fire spreading to the back of their house. A small bale of hay, placed near the dryer vent on the backside of the house to be a bed for their German Shepherd caught fire. The flames entered the house through the dryer vent.
Fire crews were able to knock out the flames within minutes and prevent the fire from continuing to spread near the house. However, both of the Christiansons’ barns were a total loss.
“If they would have been even three minutes later, then the house would have been gone,” Teri Jo said.
“Without air support and the resources that we had ordered from the ground, I was given maybe five or 10 minutes before we lose their house,” said Spokane Police Chief Brian Schaeffer. “The resources were there, it was just coordinating with them to make sure they knew where we were.”
The couple’s extended family was able to evacuate before the fire closed the road, Teri Jo said.
Schaeffer said the fire jumped the road a few times “making it impossible to travel across but that was short -lived.” It was still “extremely dangerous” for citizens trying to evacuate the area.
The neighbors who couldn’t get out in time came up to Teri Jo’s parents’ house and watched the firefighters work.
“Everybody was in a daze, like what do you do?” Teri Jo said.
“It’s just getting dark and all you see is trees burning then spot fires everywhere,” Peter said.
At about 9 p.m. the couple ventured back up the hill after the large flames subsided. They were shocked at how little damage their house sustained despite their garden and burned barns.
After about an hour of sleep, they came back up Monday morning to see firefighters still looking for hot spots in the area. A tree in the Christiansons’ field was on fire for two days before it finally was extinguished Tuesday.
The Badger Lake Fire burned 244 acres and required a response from fire crews across the state including the Bureau of Land Management and Department of Natural Resources.
Schaeffer said that because the agencies have such a strong partnership that involves training together, crews had a great chance at saving structures.
“It doesn’t matter in times like that if they’re career, volunteer, temp, seasonal, all the firefighters were trained to the same standard,” Schaeffer said. “If they were going to have a chance, that team that we have in Spokane County would be the one to pull it off.”
When firefighters began leaving earlier this week, they thanked the Christiansons for their hospitality.
“I’m like ‘are you kidding me?’ ” Teri Jo said. “No, thank you for saving our house.”
Schaeffer went to the Christiansons’ home a few days after the fire and was able to see what survived.
“I was exceptionally happy,” Schaeffer said. “It was great to meet them and to see the extended family and to hear about what happened and how finding their house makes them feel. I got the feeling when they left they weren’t expecting to come back to a house.”
In an urban interface area like Badger Lake, Schaeffer said it’s extremely important to landscape your space in a way that protects homes and outbuildings.
Many of the small outbuildings, RVs and cars that burned over the weekend were “all predictable,” Schaeffer said. Brush and trash near buildings or cars are fuel for a fire to spread to the structure, Schaeffer said.
He hopes that when rebuilding in Badger Lake, homeowners will take Firewise recommendations into consideration, like maintaining a 30-foot barrier of living plants around structures.
“We enjoy that environment,” Schaeffer said. “We enjoy the beauty but to be able to maintain that you have to be able to protect your home.”
An overnight lightning strike sparked a fire at the nearby Chapman Lake that burned 69 acres Wednesday, Schaeffer said.
The Badger Lake area was still under a Level 2 evacuation notice Thursday, meaning the road into the area was still closed to the public and residents could be asked to evacuate again at any moment.
Schaeffer said he expected crews to achieve more than 60% containment by the end of the day Thursday and to continue mop-up efforts Friday.
For the Christiansons, the next week will be “one minute at a time,” Teri Jo said, as they start the long to-do list of rebuilding.
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