Wash. Gray Fire destroys firefighters' homes
"We lost everything we owned," Spokane Valley Fire Department Captain Duane Hughes said after surveying the damage
By Garrett Cabeza
SPOKANE VALLEY, Wash. — Spokane Valley Fire Department Capt. Duane Hughes was protecting homes from the raging Gray fire. At the same time, his Silver Lake home went up in flames.
After about six hours of saving homes and seeing others burn, Hughes drove up to his destroyed house on Aug. 18.
"As we were driving to it, I was almost positive that that's what we were going to find because there was nothing left of anything on the way to the house," Hughes said.
The 32-year veteran of the SVFD wasn't the only firefighter to lose their home to the blaze.
Hughes' Granite Drive neighbor, Spokane County Fire District 10 Deputy Chief Andres Steevens, also lost his home and possessions.
SVFD Chief Frank Soto Jr. said two other SVFD employees lost their homes, one lost their shop and home but still have their primary residence and a department retiree lost their home in the Gray fire.
Spokane County Fire District 3 Chief Cody Rohrbach said he was not aware of any members of his team who lost their homes, but some had property damaged.
Rohrbach said Friday the fire that burned through Medical Lake and other parts of the West Plains destroyed 240 homes and 86 outbuildings.
Hughes, 61, said he was working when he heard the initial call for the Gray fire on the radio. Given the hot, dry and windy conditions, he and other firefighters talked about how there was a good chance they would respond to assist.
They turned out to be right.
The fire engine crew was dispatched to Lakeland Village southwest of Medical Lake as part of a structural protection strike team, Hughes said. Ultimately, they saved several houses that day while others burned.
He said they thought they saved one house where they believed only the siding and part of the interior of the house caught fire. But, the fire spread to the attic and, with resources spread thin across the West Plains and near Elk for the Oregon Road fire, it wasn't saveable.
"That was disheartening because we spent probably 30 to 45 minutes on that house and just weren't able to stop it," Hughes said.
He said he also felt "helpless" because it was a house they normally could save.
"To be out there and see all the devastation, that got to me, especially driving by houses I knew I couldn't do anything for," Hughes said. "But there was that satisfaction that being able to help the ones we did, so I guess that tempered the disappointment of not being able to help everybody."
He said he wasn't too concerned about his house at first because the wind was blowing away from it. But later, the wind shifted toward Silver Lake, and he knew his house could be in trouble.
Hughes was working about 1/2 mile from his home when he got permission from his supervisor to visit it around 8 p.m. He said his crew saved a couple more houses on the way there .
Hughes looked at his destroyed house for a few moments and immediately returned to the huge task at hand. He didn't know whether the loss of his home had hit him at that point.
"It was just kind of 'wow, alright, we've got stuff to do,' " Hughes said. "I think it was a couple days before it really started to sink in."
Besides his home, where he lived with his wife, Hughes lost two storage sheds, his pickup truck and two trailers. Everything inside the home was consumed, including firefighting memorabilia he collected over his 40-year career.
All he had were the firefighting clothes he wore to work that morning.
"We lost everything we owned," he said.
Hughes lived at that home for almost four years and spent about $150,000 the past two years remodeling it. He said they plan to rebuild on the property, and he believes insurance will cover some of the costs.
In the meantime, Hughes is staying with his daughter in Spokane Valley and has returned to work. He and his wife plan to move into a one-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment Friday.
"It's all we need," he said. "We'll do fine until we can get things squared away out there."
Hughes has seen fires destroy plenty of homes in his career, and now he more deeply understands how those homeowners feel.
"That was a huge blow," he said. "It was like, 'Wow, this is what all these people have been going through all this time.' "
'We have each other, we have our kids'Steevens and his wife, Cheryl Steevens, were in the Midwest when they were notified the Gray fire was headed toward their Silver Lake neighborhood.
Cheryl Steevens said she "lost it" when she heard the news, but her husband, a 24-year firefighter, went into "firefighter mode."
Andres Steevens said they called their neighbors, family and friends who lived in the area to let them know they needed to evacuate.
The couple's 19-year-old son was at work when he learned of the fire. Andres Steevens told him to try to put their dogs in their motorhome and drive away if the teen could make it to the house the family had lived at for seven years.
But the fast-moving fire prevented him from accessing the neighborhood, so he had to turn around.
Thankfully, Andres Steevens said firefighters were able to retrieve their dogs. Their pet bird died in the fire.
"We're very lucky because we have a lot of neighbors that lost their pets — their cats, some of them lost dogs," he said.
The couple booked a Saturday flight home to find their property in ruins.
The couple's house, shop, Andres Steevens' Fire District 10 Chevy Tahoe and several personal vehicles were destroyed.
With the help of firefighters, they pulled some items from their shop as well as a truck. But the truck will likely be a total loss, Andres Steevens said.
The couple, both U.S. Air Force veterans who served at Fairchild Air Force Base, was essentially left with Cheryl Steevens' vehicle that was parked at the airport before departing to Illinois for a friend's firefighting retirement ceremony.
"I think we have been on a little bit of a roller coaster," Andres Steevens said. "We're trying to remain very positive. We try to use our sense of humor I think a lot of times to get through the tough times."
Cheryl Steevens said she's shed tears every now and then since the fire.
"You have to kind of stop and say, 'OK, it's materialistic,' " she said.
The couple noted several items of sentimental value destroyed in the fire.
They included things Cheryl Steevens' great-grandmother brought with her from Hungary and her grandfather's World War II uniforms and flight records. Andres Steevens lost his wedding ring in the fire, but he still has another wedding ring he wears at work.
"We have each other," Andres Steevens said. "We have our kids. We have our pets even. So overall, man, we're already ahead."
The couple is now living at Fairchild, where Cheryl Steevens is the housing chief.
"Trust me, the irony is not lost on us," she said with a laugh. "I manage housing. He manages fire and we lost our house."
The couple expressed deep thanks to the community, law enforcement, firefighters, Avista Utilities, Fairchild and everyone else who supported them. Hughes also thanked the community, firefighters and Soto.
"No words can describe how thankful we are," Andres Steevens said.
He commended the various fire agencies who worked together to fight the blaze.
"In my job I see it all the time, but seeing it coming to help us, and be put into action, I think that that right there is something that needs to be highlighted," he said.
The Steevenses said they want any guilt firefighters may be feeling from the homes destroyed, dead pets and the dead man to fade away. They also don't want homeowners who did not lose their homes to have guilt, either.
The couple said insurance should help cover some costs and hope the federal government provides assistance as well.
"We will rebuild our home no matter what it takes and we will make that area prettier than what it was," Andres Steevens said.