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Difference Makers: Elk, Medical Lake residents used water tanks to douse flames, save properties in devastating fires

Hundreds of firefighters swarmed Elk and the West Plains to battle the devastating Oregon Road and Gray fires.

Some residents braved the heat, thick smoke and “war zone” atmosphere as well, dousing and saving properties using water tanks.

Terry Rees, 73, and his two employees at Rees Family Belgians saved several houses from destruction by spraying their neighbors’ properties with water from an old water truck and fire engine.

Terry and his wife, Bev, own Terry’s Truck Center, a truck repair shop in Spokane Valley, and Rees Family Belgians.

The married couple of 52 years shows a hitch of Belgian draft horses at events, like state fairs, across the country. They have 40 Belgian horses and another 10 quarter horses at their 80-acre Oregon Road ranch, which was unscathed by the fire.

Bev said she was alerted to the Oregon Road fire by a neighbor who was out of town but noticed the blaze on the PulsePoint app.

Bev said she looked outside and saw a large plume of black smoke. One of her employees, Cosme Castro, jumped in the ranch’s white 1985 Ford water truck, which holds a 2,000-gallon water tank, and drove to the fire’s origin.

“I didn’t realize it would go like it did,” Bev said of the fire. “I thought he would unload that water truck and it would be over, and yet by the time we got there it was roaring.”

The fast-moving fire was fueled by hot temperatures and strong winds.

For the next 40 hours, Terry and his employees, Castro and Edgar Rodriguez, endured the heat and smoke and doused people’s properties with water. They saved about a half dozen houses.

They also used a tractor to dig fire lines and took people’s horses onto their property if they needed safety.

Skip Bellinger’s log home was one of the structures Terry and his crew saved.

Bellinger said he was on his couch dozing off when a neighbor started banging on his house, advising him of the fire. Sheriff’s deputies and firefighters arrived shortly after, telling him to leave.

Bellinger, 68, grabbed his phone and medicine and figured his property of 34 years would be in ruins when he returned.

“I go, ‘Oh god, there goes my house,’ ” he said.

Then, he spotted Terry and his two employees coming down his driveway in the water truck.

They watered the perimeter of the property and the area near the back of his shop where a roughly 180-gallon propane tank was. The fire came within 25 feet of the tank, which was the scariest part, but it never exploded, Bellinger said.

The fire came right up to his house but was not damaged by the flames.

“Without Rees, it wouldn’t be here,” Bellinger said. “No way.”

The fire did torch 17 of his 20 acres, including “magnificent trees” and the back of an outbuilding, he said.

Bev said saving Bellinger’s home showed they could make a difference that weekend.

Bev said one man told them his neighbor’s house burned down and his was next.

“Terry was like, ‘The hell you are,’ ” said Bev, noting her husband ended up saving the man’s house with the water truck.

Terry said he mostly drove the water truck while Cosme used a 1988 fire engine that holds about 700 gallons of water. The couple had bought the engine from an area fire department.

“It’s amazing what a difference that little water truck made,” she said.

Terry said they filled the trucks with water multiple times over the three days as they searched for hot spots and houses that needed saving.

The hot, smoky conditions made it difficult to breathe and see, Terry said.

“You’d be in so much smoke sometimes you couldn’t be seen,” he said.

Bellinger called the Rees family and their employees heroes.

“They’re magnificent people,” he said. “That’s all I can tell ya.”

The Rees said they were fortunate to have the equipment and that Terry, Castro and Rodriguez were available to use it that weekend.

“If you look at something and you think you can make a difference, why wouldn’t you?” Bev said.

‘I was there to help whomever’

Kent Reitmeier, 60, said he was at his Medical Lake home when the Gray fire sparked outside of town.

He heard the alarm for the fire come across his phone and didn’t think anything of it. Then, he looked out the back window of his house and saw smoke rising above a hill.

“Within minutes, you knew it was going to be bad,” he said.

Reitmeier decided to hook up his trailer, which carried a 500-gallon water tank, to his pickup truck and drive toward Lakeland Village where he started putting out hot spots behind the care facility.

“I grew up here and it’s just, I think, part of my nature,” Reitmeier said of helping neighbors. “I like helping people when I can and I just had a bad feeling this was going to be bad.”

He said he tried to put out house fires but the dark smoke, strong winds and flames made it difficult.

For example, he tried in vain to put out a fire that had engulfed a house.

He said he was worried about his safety, calling certain times “pretty sketchy.”

“You could hear propane tanks going off, you could hear tires blowing,” Reitmeier said of the conditions. “It was almost like a war zone.”

He said he also led Spokane firefighters to places such as Medical Lake Middle School. He said he filled up his water tank five times the first day, Aug. 18.

Reitmeier said he worked until about 2 a.m. the next day, got a few hours of sleep and was back checking on houses around 5 or 6 a.m.

That day, he said he ran into an Avista Utilities employee who asked if Reitmeier could put out pole fires for him, so he did.

“I was there to help whomever,” Reitmeier said.

As a longtime former farmer, he said “you just push on” when you’re tired.

Reitmeier said he was taught to drop everything and help neighbors if one can. Many other farmers did that during the Gray fire because it’s “what we do,” he said.

“I hope I never go through something like this again, and I probably never will,” he said.