Members of the Selah community are still trying to find their bearings after a catastrophic wildfire began raging in the Wenas Valley on Aug. 31.
In just 10 days’ time, the Evans Canyon Fire consumed about 76,000 acres and destroyed six homes and six outbuildings. Driven by high winds and tinder-dry conditions, the fire forced the evacuation of 900 homes from Selah to Naches and created hazardous air quality across the region for nearly two weeks.
As of Sept. 11, Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) crews were in the mop-up phase, but not before the Evans Canyon Fire had become one of the most devastating fire events in Yakima Valley history.
“It was a shocker to have a fire that big hit us,” said Scott Willis, a training lieutenant for the Selah Fire Department, who was involved in the initial response before the DNR took the lead on Sept. 2. “Our chief (Gary Hanna) said this is the biggest fire he can remember in the area since 1984, when 35,000 acres burned.”
The Evans Canyon blaze started in some timber near the BBQ Flats campground — about eight miles northwest of Naches — on the afternoon of Monday, Aug. 31. By Tuesday, the fire crossed the Kittitas County line and, by day three, had scorched 35,000 acres. Just five days after the fire erupted, it had grown to 75,817 acres, or 118 square miles.
An earlier assessment estimated the fire wouldn’t be fully contained until early November, but crews were fortunate that the high winds over Labor Day weekend didn’t hinder their containment efforts. More than 1,000 firefighters from around the state were called into action, and the cause of the fire is under investigation.
“The DNR brought in resources from all over, so, fortunately, containment was good before the big wind event last weekend (Sept. 7),” Willis said, adding that the situation one week earlier was far different.
“We wish we could have done more for the people who lost their homes,” he said. “That was terrible, and no one wanted to see that happen. But there was just no way to control the fire due to the wind conditions the first two days. We couldn’t protect the homes the way we wanted to, and sadly, we couldn’t save all of them.”
Willis said the Selah Fire Department has been extremely grateful for all of the support pouring in from around the community. People have been donating food, water, money and supplies to make sure the local first responders have everything they need.
“We have been overwhelmed with donations and support,” he said. “The people in Selah have really stepped up.”
Daren Kessler is just one of the many community members who have gone the extra mile to take care of the Selah firefighters. The owner of Gutter Guys contributed $500 to the relief effort and also delivered a truck bed-full of supplies to Fire Station No. 1 on Fremont Avenue.
“This community is a big deal to me, and when it comes to helping people, I love to be involved however I can,” said Kessler, a 2005 Selah High School graduate who went through two years of firefighter training at YV-Tech. “I went to school with a lot of these guys, and firefighting has had a big impact on my life. I love these guys, and I want to make sure they know we have their backs.”
Kessler said he chose to contribute his time and money because “it felt like the right thing to do.” But he also views the firefighting relief effort as another way he can give back. He sees himself as a future leader in the community, like Mayor Sherry Raymond and car salesmen Bill and Brian Harris are today.
“A lot of people I knew growing up have been taking care of this community for years, and I feel like it’s my turn,” he said, tipping his cap to Selah resident Ginger Tyler for all she has done for the relief effort. “It’s always been community-first for me.”
Bob Dexter is another Selah resident who felt like it was his duty to help out during this challenging time. When the owner of Northwestern Auto Glass heard that three Selah volunteer firefighters had their vehicle windows smashed Sept. 1 while working on the Evans Canyon Fire, he sprang into action.
With help from his daughter, Hannah Humphreys, Dexter put out the word on social media, seeking help to repair the firefighters’ busted-out car and truck windows. Before long, he had received donations from all over the Valley, and from as far away as Texas, Utah and Arizona.
“We ended up bringing in about $1,800 and we turned it all over to the firefighters,” said Dexter, who also donated the glass to fix the windows. “We don’t think of ourselves as heroes in any way. The guys out fighting the fires are the real heroes, so we wanted to take the burden off of them. It felt like the least we could do.”
The social media discussion eventually led Brian Harris Used Cars to donate the service hours required to repair the three vehicles. A half-dozen other companies from Yakima and Selah also reached out to volunteer their time, Dexter said.
“Hannah put out a post asking for help, and the response was just overwhelming,” he said. “Brian Harris Used Cars was able to jump right in, and we thought it made sense to have the work done here in town. But there were a lot of other people who offered to help.”
Dexter, a lifelong Selah resident, added that he is no longer surprised to see the locals do whatever they can to help out their neighbors.
“My whole life, Selah has done this,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what it is. If someone needs help, the people here take care of them.”
Nana Kate’s owner Catherine Platt echoed that sentiment, saying the community’s relief effort has been nothing short of inspiring.
“I love what I have seen in this community over the past two weeks,” said Platt, whose business has been preparing meals for displaced residents. “We may have our differences, but when the chips are down, the people of Selah always step up. This is such a fantastic community, and we always rise to the occasion.”