HARRINGTON, Wash. – Seventy-six-year-old Jim Hoffman fought the smoldering fire Wednesday with a pitchfork. He was trying to keep the 130,000-acre Whitney Fire from crossing Seven Springs Dairy Road.
Hoffman was born in 1944. By his third day, Hoffman was inside the dairy barn for which that road was named.
“I saw a barn burning down that has been there since I was a teeny kid,” Hoffman said. “The worst thing I saw was a doe and two fawns that got circled. It killed them. This one, I think, is the worst fire I’ve ever seen here.”
Hoffman looked out at the charred landscape that included 1,000 of his acres. He was trying with his pitchfork to save the 3,000 acres just across the road that his family relies on for winter pasture for his cattle.
“If it burns up, we have to sell the cows or buy hay,” he said.
Midway through his effort, a tanker truck arrived and helped put water on the fire. Hoffman pointed out that the same crews had done the same thing on the same spot the day before.
Even at 76, Hoffman said he had little sleep. He was needed, he said, so he could direct fire crews in the dark so they didn’t drive into a ditch or over an embankment.
Hoffman’s rescue effort was one of the many stops Wednesday for Craig Sweet, chief of the all-volunteer Lincoln County Fire District 5.
Sweet’s crews have been battling the Whitney Fire since it started Monday when a power line came down on Hawk Creek Road. A driver couldn’t see the downed line and it sparked when the car’s windshield hit the wires, Sweet said.
Pushed by gusts up to 45 mph, the fire quickly became an inferno that raced southwest. It crossed Highway 2 with the heavy smoke causing several collisions before officials closed the road. It jumped the highway and raced 12 miles before it turned west and ran another 27 miles, Sweet said.
“The wind today is coming out of the east. That’s why we are getting flare-ups on the west side,” he said as he sat in a 1991 Chevy Suburban.
While the truck was built the same year that Sweet started on the fire department, it has only been his vehicle for the past 10 years, which coincides with his reign as chief.
Along with a small army of tinder trucks, the crews were aided by four fire boss fixed-wing aircraft and two helicopters. But Sweet said he needed more resources.
“The south end of this fire kind of got neglected and it blew apart on us,” he said.
While he’s fought other fires, like the Angel Springs and Hart Road fires which occurred in more difficult terrain, the Whitney Fire is the biggest blaze of his 29-year career.
“Local resources are hitting it, but we are just running out of everything. Manpower is short and we are having problems getting resources from (Department of Natural Resources) because they have a lot of fires going on elsewhere, too,” he said.
The goal on Wednesday was to stop the fire on Coffee Pot Road. But an easterly wind kept pushing the fire and creating what looked like an upside down thunderhead in the distance.
“If we don’t stop it there, there is nothing to stop it until you get to Odessa,” Sweet said. “The terrain there is a lot rougher.”
Sweet drove miles on roads so dusty they sent up clouds of their own. He finally bounced down a minimum-maintenance road that led to an escarpment overlooking a section of Bureau of Land Management ground.
Charred ground could be seen for miles in every direction. Even after minutes of driving, Sweet said he was standing at about the midpoint of the fire. Along the way were miles of burned out fences and telephone poles.
While ranchers were still trying to survey the damage, four dead cows could be seen from Telford Road. The cows had huddled in an aspen grove, but failed to escape the fire and were burned to death.
Nearby, a small herd of mule deer bounced across the ash after somehow finding shelter near a pond. The landscape was blackened but for the occasional marsh surrounded by a green oasis. Next to burning sagebrush along Highway 2, dozens of preying mantises crawled onto the pavement to escape the flames.
After monitoring the radio at the water refill station, Sweet bounced his Suburban over a hay field and into rocks and sage brush to deliver his crews boxed meals of fried chicken. The firefighters had to cut through a barbed-wire fence to reach him.
The rancher, Darrel Parsons, arrived to help fight the fire. He drove a John Deere tractor with a water tank strapped to the back.
“This sage brush is so hot. If that fire gets going, we can’t stop it,” Parsons said.
“We are trying to get a dozer over here to get a line in front of it,” Sweet said.
“That would be perfect,” Parsons said. “Whatever you need to do, cut the wires, no problem.”
Parsons said his family has been farming that ground since 1936. His uncle, Ross Parsons, used to farm it with horses. A neighbor kid helped Ross Parsons with the horses. That former kid is now 76-year-old Jim Hoffman.
Parsons said he was doing everything he could to stop the fire from spreading to a nearby hill and his hay field, which are all he has left for his cows.
“There are so many fires in the area that it’s tough to get enough assets to fight it,” Parsons said. “We’ve lost three or four miles of fence. Insurance doesn’t cover the cost of fence. That comes right out of our own pocket.”
As far as resources, the Whitney fire had 16 engines, 10 bulldozer crews, and one hand crew, DNR spokeswoman Gayne Sears said. It was listed as a Level 3 incident, which allows the state to marshal local crews to help.
The four air boss aircraft were hitting the Whitney Fire on Wednesday morning but got called off to another incident, she said.
Sweet said he expected the fire to be upgraded to a Level 2 fire by the end of the week, which would allow firefighters to mobilize from around the country.
“You put in an order (for national resources) and you might get half,” Sweet said. “Or, you might get nothing with so many fires going on in the state of Washington.”
So far, four primary homes, including three south of Seven Springs Dairy Road and one near the source of the fire, have been lost. Officials still don’t have a number of burned outbuildings or killed livestock.
Crews put extra effort into protecting the structures they could, Sweet said.
“Some we couldn’t save because of our personnel’s safety. A structure can be replaced, a person can’t,” he said.
Sweet is now concerned about the wind. It came out of the northeast during the storm on Monday and was primarily out of the east on Wednesday. He said he heard that it could change to coming out of the southwest by Friday.
If that comes, some fire could blow back into the black, which is good. But it’s the northern edge, north of Highway 2, that Sweet refers to as the “heel” of the fire that has him worried.
“If we don’t get control of the heel,” Sweet said of the fire activity north of Highway 2, “that’s just going to open up and go.”
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