Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

A Washington wildfire sparked in a field of wheat. Within minutes it overwhelmed firefighters

By Isabella Breda The Seattle Times

CLEAR LAKE, Wash. — Steve McBride guided his Jeep Compass through the dense smoke. The landscape of once golden-brown ponderosa pines and tan brittle grasses was charred and smoldering.

Just hours before, police had escorted him out of his home. But he was headed back into the flames, determined to turn his neighborhood’s water back on and give fire crews a fighting chance.

When he reached the edge of his idyllic lakeside community about 18 miles southwest of Spokane, firefighters told him to go at his own risk. ” ‘There’s fire everywhere,’ ” he recalled them warning.

He pressed on.

The Gray fire was one of two wildfires that consumed hundreds of homes, burned thousands of acres and killed two people in Spokane County this summer. The damage is a stark reminder of the rising risks to people living in what experts call the wildland-urban interface, or the transition zone between wildlands, rich with fuels for fire, and human development.

For over a century, modern fire-management practices have suppressed fires in these areas that have exploded with people and properties.

As climate change drives intensifying summer heat, the dramatic consequences have been realized for some communities in these spaces. Fires have destroyed hundreds of homes this summer in British Columbia, which in just the past seven years has seen four of the most severe wildfire seasons of the last century. In 2020, the Babb Road fire, fueled by wind, dry grass and wheat, burned over 15,000 acres and razed more than 200 structures in Washington’s small valley towns of Malden and Pine City.

“There’s not a one-to-one correlation between rising temperatures and the increase in the amount of acres burned,” said Washington state climatologist Nick Bond. “But overall, both are going up and that’s no coincidence.”

Four days of near triple-digit heat preceded the Gray fire, then a dry, cold front pushed 20- to 30-mph winds, with gusts up to 40 mph, from the west. The area, which is typically warm and dry in August, saw 6% relative humidity.

“The model is saying this is the driest it’s ever modeled for this period … ,” said National Weather Service Meteorologist Steve Bodnar, of the Gray fire’s response team.

“All of the ingredients were in place,” said Fire Chief Cody Rohrbach, of Spokane County District 3.

All it took was a spark.

Fire in the wheat

About 12:24 p.m. Aug. 18, Rohrbach’s team received the first reports of a 1- or 2-acre brush fire moving fast.

The winds were pouring fire over the landscape, beginning in wheat crops on a hillside about 5 miles southwest of the city of Medical Lake.

At that point, every patch of grass, shrub or tree was combustible, Rohrbach said.

Driving through the town in the early minutes of the fire, Rohrbach saw city and Eastern State Hospital staffers congregating on the corner of Pine Street and West Fancher Road.

He told them to have everybody ready to move quickly and drove west on Fancher, about a third of a mile to where he could see the leading edge of the blaze.

He saw a 30- or 40-foot wall of flames pushing toward Lakeland Village, a state-run care facility for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Another dispatch reported the fire about 200 acres.

The fire looked like afterburners on a jet, Rohrbach said. It torched a few trees and ripped through grass, wheat and wheat stubble as it rolled over the hill toward the timber line. He whipped back around to instruct the people on the corner to clear the intersection and the state facilities to shelter in place, as they had prepared for just the day before amid the dry conditions.

“I knew immediately when I arrived on scene that we would not contain the fire,” Rohrbach said.

Fire crews were told to focus on saving residents’ lives.

Within two hours the fire overwhelmed regional capabilities, in a county with more resources for wildland firefighting than most.

The fire was unstoppable.

“You can imagine firefighters trying to use roads, lakes, other natural features, dozer lines to construct a barrier for fire,” Rohrbach said. “Under those conditions, the fire went right over. It went right over the lake then didn’t even stop and just kept on marching. That’s a 6.7-mile run to the east.”

A level 3 “Go Now” evacuation notice was issued for communities from Gray Road east to Clear Lake. It soon expanded to the city of Medical Lake and neighborhoods around Silver Lake.

Through the smoke

Mary Johnson was at a luncheon when the fire started barreling toward her family’s home near the Silver Lake Bible Camp.

Not far from here among the towering pines, moose and deer grazing on the plentiful grasses, and lake that twinkled in the summer sun, she raised her six kids. Her daughter Pharelon Johnson would go on to raise her daughter, Myryda Johnson, in this home.

Mary Johnson approached her driveway, but was turned away by a sheriff’s deputy.

Just a few minutes north along the lake’s shore, Jacob Bouvette got a notification on his phone through wildfire-tracking app . His partner, Jennie Tinsley, called him on her way home from lunch in town to see if he knew anything about the big plume of smoke.

“I can hear the car door dinging and I was like, ‘Where are you going?’ ” Tinsley said. “And he’s like, ‘I’m gonna go see where the fire is.’ “

By the time she came down her road, there was a wall of smoke. Bouvette was loading their two dogs in their car. In their green and white 1,700 square foot tri-level house they had moved into in April 2022, they researched how to pack a “bug-out bag.”

“We felt like, we live in the forest now, so we should probably be prepared,” Tinsley said.

So far, all they had inside was their insurance policy and a few days of dog food.

Tinsley grabbed her work laptop, knowing she should probably be online in case she needed to finish anything up that afternoon, but thinking she’d return to her beautiful home office, with wraparound windows that showed off her manicured lawn, patio and fire pit.

Bouvette cursed his metal dog crates as he tried to quickly collapse and fit them into the car. He pleaded with a sheriff’s deputy for 30 more seconds to go inside and get what else he needed. The deputy said he’d wait.

The smoke was too thick to see homes less than 50 yards away as they made their way out. The fire was less than an hour away from their neighborhood at that point, according to footage recorded on a neighbor’s trail camera. Later, they would learn from a video posted to Facebook that their home burned to the ground.

By the time Mary Johnson’s son and daughter-in-law picked her up from a friend’s home where she’d been sheltering on the other side of Silver Lake, flames flanked both sides of the road.

Spokane County fire crews’ request for state mobilization was approved by 2:45 p.m. Friday. The Gray fire quickly became the No. 1 priority fire in the nation, according to Rohrbach.

Over a thousand law enforcement and fire crews from state agencies and regional departments would arrive to help, and the Gray fire, before 5 p.m., was reported to reach 3,000 acres.

Headed home to Elk, a rural town about 30 miles northeast of Spokane, a new plume of smoke emerged in Michael Martin’s line of sight. “I drove right up into it and thought: oh, my God. Holy [expletive], this is bad,” he said as the Oregon Road fire began to spread. His family’s uninsured home was leveled by the flames.

“These two fires will be by themselves the most catastrophic fire in Spokane County history. Both occurring simultaneously,” Chief Rohrbach said.

Embers carried in the wind sparked spot fires along Interstate 90, some tearing into homes. That evening, the Gray fire leapt the highway.

Carl Grub, a co-founder of The Jensen Memorial Youth Ranch, where kids could learn to raise livestock, was reported dead near the intersection in Medical Lake where Rohrbach had warned the city and state staffers. He was 86.

The winds shifted and began to blow the wall of fire south.

Pump house smoldered

The next morning, through the rows of scorched pines, Steve McBride charged back into his neighborhood.

“I went by myself against my wife and parents’ wishes,” McBride said.

McBride had for years volunteered as the board president for the water association for 72 homes. He learned the hydrants had stopped producing water around 1 or 2 a.m. when the neighborhood well went offline.

As he made his way up the dirt road to the pump house, he was flanked by fire on all sides. When he got there, the outside of the building was smoldering.

“It put me in a scary fight or flight mode,” McBride said. “I don’t think I’ve ever been in one.”

McBride unlocked the pump house, turned on the pump and used the first drops to snuff out the fire on the building.

He then taught the firefighters how to use their small system, which allowed about one fill up each hour for the trucks and tenders that can hold up to thousands of gallons.

By evening, fire dribbled across the canopies of the ponderosa pines, roaring and cracking as loud as a passing freight train. That’s when McBride knew it was time to go.

“It just went from tree to tree to tree,” McBride said. “It was terrifying. I didn’t know fire had a sound.”

As the fire grew to more than 9,000 acres, firefighters preserved dozens of homes in McBride’s neighborhood.

Emergency ends

Much of the more than 10,000-acre footprint of the Gray fire burned in less than two days. On Sunday, Aug. 20, some families began returning to what was left of their neighborhoods.

At least two dozen people were reported missing as the fires raged through. Law enforcement eventually located everyone. The Red Cross, emergency responders, Spokane County Sheriff’s Office, and Spokane County Department of Emergency Management all came together to aid the community.

“They did their jobs extremely well, which helped provide the best possible outcome,” Rohrbach said. “The challenge here is, this is still the outcome. It could have been so much worse.”

Alex Brown, 49, was found dead along Oregon Road in Elk and marked the fires’ second fatality. He died from heat and smoke inhalation.

First responders were bracing for a larger loss of life.

As for the number of structures lost, estimated to be more than 350, and the threat to life, this was the worst fire Chief Rohrbach had seen in Spokane County. And Spokane County has been identified as one of the most at-risk communities in the state for catastrophic wildfire, he added.

The blaze was reminiscent of the 1991 firestorm that destroyed 112 homes and killed two people in the inland Northwest. More than 80 fires scorched 50,000 acres in the first day.

Rohrbach rattled off the contributing factors: prolonged drought; 100 years of fire suppression in a place that in previous centuries saw fire every few years; explosion of grasses and other fuels that dried out in the warm weather.

Ultimately, there used to be more fires and fewer people, he said.

The Oregon Road fire grew to nearly 11,000 acres; it is believed to be human-caused, but is still under investigation. The cause of the Gray fire has not yet been released.

The state Department of Natural Resources and local fire districts have been offering free home-risk assessments and helped homeowners prepare through programs like Wildfire Ready Neighbors.

“We talked to some residents that said, ‘Wow, we implemented that program and it saved our house,’ ” Rohrbach said. “We know that those things help. But we also know that under these conditions, there’s not ever a 100% solution.”

Two weeks later

As the rain splattered on a blanket of ash and debris, Myryda Johnson delicately lifted a burnt ceramic doll head from the rubble left of her childhood bedroom.

The doll was Myryda’s growing up. It danced to a lullaby when someone turned the knob, her mom recalled, pointing out her daughter’s childhood bed, now nothing more than a wire frame.

Pharelon was raised in a military family, one of six siblings. It often meant a lot of moving. But once her dad was stationed at Fairchild Air Force Base nearby, Pharelon Johnson said, her parents chose to stay in Medical Lake. If her dad were to get stationed elsewhere, he’d come back to visit them in their home here.

Growing up in the small town of Medical Lake meant Pharelon Johnson has to this day kept some of the friends she made in kindergarten.

Through tears, Pharelon Johnson said she can’t go anywhere without someone offering her something. They plan to rebuild and stay in the community.

“People always say look for the helpers, look for the helpers,” Myryda Johnson said. “But what do you do when all of the helpers are needing the help?”