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Recovery under way in Spokane County communities devastated by wildfire

The communities in and near Medical Lake and Elk in Spokane County were devastated by wildfires in August. Recovery is underway -- cutting down thousands of dead trees threatening homes and businesses, rebuilding, and replanting.

Silver Lake Bible Camp outside of Medical Lake is a staging area for relief efforts, and where some who lost their homes have taken refuge.

Mike Sweeney’s been living in an RV at the camp since both he, and his parents lost their homes in the wildfire. He was working at Lakeland Village, an adult care facility for people with developmental disabilities. When the fire swept in, he was able to save only his dog.

“I realized there was just forest between Lakeland Village and Silver Lake, so made a phone call to the neighbors and asked them to get my poodle, and don’t forget her leash, because without a leash, she’s anyone’s poodle,” he said.

Sweeney is one of a few homeowners who have volunteered to help others while waiting for word from his insurance company and contractors. He and Kathy Fraley, who’s also living in an RV after losing her home, have been volunteering with Team Rubicon, a veteran-led disaster assistance group, clearing burned trees and assisting others affected by the wildfire.

“It’s a job just even clearing, you’ve seen all the trees that have to down, so we’re working, doing whatever they need us to do,” Fraley said.

Team Rubicon has taken down thousands of trees that town residents couldn’t afford to have cut down, or weren’t able to manage themselves.

The factors that made the fires around Medical Lake and Elk difficult to fight – namely, terrain and urban forests in neighborhoods, have also presented challenges for those helping residents recover.

One of the sites volunteer Maggie Coit, who drove from Seattle to help wildfire victims, visited was surrounded by a once dense urban forest. Now most of the trees are dead, and many could cause damage if the homeowner rebuilds.

“A lot of the sites have been pretty steep terrain, which changes obviously footing,” Coit said, “and there's been clearly just a tragic loss among the community, in terms of homes destroyed, and just belongings. It’s so heart wrenching to see, the skeletons of the metal in the rubble.”

Coit, and volunteer team member John Schelling are both sawyers, which means they’re trained to chainsaw burnt trees and remove burned debris. The day a wildfire tore North Spokane County, the wind shifted, sparing Schelling’s property. He said he’s been trying to help others less fortunate since.

“It was close, it was probably four air miles away,” he said. “It was smoky, we were ready to bail out, but fortunately the wind was in our favor, not somebody else, we were lucky.”

Volunteers from across the West have helped wildfire victims from both fires, as well as religious organizations, and state, and local governments.

Steve Harris, a natural resource manager with the Washington Department of Natural Resources, said efforts to prepare outdoor spaces before winter snowfalls begin are critical to protect burned areas from erosion and flooding.

He said the burned soil now repels water, and the loss of many old, strong trees have left the topsoil vulnerable.

“What we're doing with landowners is encouraging them to plant, get the seed in the areas where there was disturbance by the dozer lines, or areas where there's hard burn, where there’s no grass coming back,” Harris said.

Harris said that, between the two fire areas in Spokane County, the agency has already given out three tons of grass seed, and is awaiting another order. He said it’s most effective if it’s planted just before the first snowfall.

In addition to assistance local and state aid, wildfire victims in the Medical Lake and Elk areas could soon be eligible for federal assistance from FEMA, and the Environmental Protection Agency. If President Joe Biden approves the request, wildfire victims could get individual federal assistance and the E-P-A could help address the extensive environmental damage.


Rebecca White is a 2018 graduate of Edward R Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University. She's been a reporter at Spokane Public Radio since February 2021. She got her start interning at her hometown paper The Dayton Chronicle and previously covered county government at The Spokesman-Review.