Monday, February 14, 2011

How the White Swan Fires Reminded Me How Cool the Internet Is.

Not the bird, the town.

Last Saturday, a small chimney fire was spread to many homes and logyard in the tiny, unincorporated town of White Swan, Washington. High winds of 40mph carried embers to the dry logs, and fanned by wind they took immediately. More embers were carried to homes that were spread around the small town. About 20 homes were lost, parts of the area are still without power today due to downed power lines resulting from both the wind and fire that had spread to trees.

White Swan is about 45 miles from Yakima in eastern Washington. It is part of the Yakima Indian Reservation and where I spent most of my childhood. I graduated from the high school there, and have been told countless times that I should write a book about the experience of growing up in such an interesting area. I haven't got a drop of Native American blood in my veins, but my stepfather and my mother's adoptive father are both Yakima. I certainly did catch a lot of flak for being red-haired and fair-skinned, but not nearly as much as you might think.

Being so far from anything remotely like a city, it took several fire crews from all over the Yakima Valley most of Saturday and part of Sunday to fully contain all the fires. Most of the people who lost homes are people I know. The best thing about the whole incident is that not one person was hurt. Amazing.

When I heard the news, it was completely by mistake. I was killing time on facebook (I'd caught another cold, felt miserable, and was waiting for some show to come on) and saw one of my high school classmates post "What's burning down there?" She sometimes posts really random things through her mobile, and it is often days before I figure out what the hell she's talking about. Because I'm a smartass, I replied with some off color remark about seeing a doctor for that.

Of course it turned out to be something pretty horrible. More people from the small town of White Swan starting posting updates... this many homes lost, the wind is spreading more fires, the logyard is burning, etc. I watched these updates like a hawk; I live in Oregon and there was no feasible way for me to attempt to help from so far away. It felt pretty helpless, not being there to at least comfort friends.

Then something really cool happened. Someone posted about the live scanner in Yakima. Apparently, many cities have sites where you can tune in and listen to police and fire scanners... I had no idea! My father was a firefighter and paramedic for the city of Port Angeles, and we always had a scanner in the house for when he was on call. The last thing I knew about scanners was that it wasn't legal for 'civilian' types to have them or to be able to tune in on their bands. I still remember what all the tones mean.

I listened for about 3 hours, and knew at a certain point late at night that they finally had a fair grasp on all the fires. It really made me feel better to at least know the current situation.

Now everyone there is pulling together, trying to get donations of food, clothing and toiletries for all the displaced people. Again, with the internet, news spread fast and they have a lot of goods flowing in. They already had to find a location with more room!

So yeah, the internet is awesome. Without it, I may not have known the plight of my little home town even now; my mother lives in Yakima still, but didn't know about it until I called her.

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