This summer, devastating wildfires swept up and down the west coast of the United States, destroying towns and leaving countless communities in ruins. More than 700,000 acres burned in Washington alone, making 2020 the second most destructive wildfire season on record in the state.
Fighting these fires during the COVID-19 pandemic has only made things tougher. "This pandemic is the largest event that I've ever, in 30 years — and I'm sure every fire fighter in Washington state and across the United States and Canada and the world, really — has had to deal with," said Jeff Wainwright, 2nd District Representative, Washington State Council of Fire Fighters. "It's definitely, in the almost 30 years that I've been doing this, the most stressful period of time that I've operated as a first responder fire fighter."
In Whitman County, south of Spokane and close to the Idaho border, the small towns of Malden and Pine City, Wash. were hit especially hard. On Labor Day, a fire rolled through that reduced both cities to rubble. Residents were immediately placed under evacuation orders. Almost all buildings in the fire's wake were wiped out, including Malden's post office, town hall, and, in a cruel twist of fate, its fire station. In Pine City, only six homes survived the blaze, according to the Spokesman-Review.
With the 12 Flag raising in Week 8, we are honoring all of the fire fighters and first responders around the state and beyond who have worked tirelessly to help keep people safe, including those who combated the fires in Malden and Pine City. Lieutenant Adam Villard, fire fighter/paramedic and long-time Seahawks season ticket holder Chris Hoagland, and all of Spokane County Fire Station 81 have been chosen as the honorary 12 Flag raisers for Sunday's game against the San Francisco 49ers.
A flag raising ceremony was held on Tuesday, where Hoagland, Villard and their families were able to hoist a 12 Flag at Station 81 in Spokane. Members of the station have also been invited to join the team for the Pregame Huddle via Microsoft Teams prior to kickoff.
The Malden fire was outside of their district, but after they heard it go out on the radio, Villard and Hoagland were sent to the town in an effort to save whatever was left.
"So as we're heading down to Malden, we're getting closer and it's just this giant plume," Villard said Tuesday. "I'm telling Chris, my driver, I was like, 'We're not going to make it. The fire's going to beat us before we get down there.' And so sure enough, we're about a half mile from the town and we got cut off by the fire front. So we had to back out and wait."
After about ten minutes, they went in to find very little left of the town of Malden. "We saved what we could," Villard said, "but it was like, I've never been in a warzone, but if I were to imagine one, that's what it was like."
"We had a little bit of a drive to get there," Hoagland said, "but it looked like we were driving into the worst fire I've ever seen. We had some challenges getting there, and once we did, it was pretty surreal to see multiple towns completely gone."
What was most striking to Villard was that their crew was alone in the fight against the fire. A ladder truck from the city and a brush truck from Spokane County arrived later, but since Malden's fire station and single fire truck were lost in the fire, resources were even more limited than normal and other crews were still back where the fire had started. When they moved to Pine City afterwards, it was the same situation.
"So I'm thinking, still not knowing really where the other rigs are, I was like, 'Okay, that must be where all of the other rigs are!' Villard said. "And so us and the big ladder, we get up there and we're by ourselves. It was just surreal.
"There were a handful of homes that were actively smoldering under the eaves or behind some siding that we took care of. I believe they're still standing because of our actions. It's one of those where] you do the best you can.” By the next Monday, September 14, [the fire was 90% contained.
The Malden and Pine City fires were devastating, but the 2020 wildfire season's effects were felt far beyond eastern Washington. According to the Federation of American Scientists, more than 44,000 wildfires have burned nearly eight million acres in the United States this year, and the nationwide preparedness level has been at the maximum since August 18. First responders across the country have given — and are still giving — their time and effort in the middle of a pandemic to comfort those affected, and it is on their behalf that Villard, Hoagland, and Spokane County Fire Station 81 raise the 12 Flag.
As someone who spent their childhood going to Seahawks games, Hoagland understands the significance of having the privilege to raise the flag.
"Oh, it's a huge honor," Hoagland said. "I go on YouTube and just watch the flag raisers before the game. I always make sure I'm at the game in time to see the flag raised because it honestly gives me goosebumps and chills to see them and see the little intro that they get and who they are, and then to watch them raise the flag … It's the perfect start to a game because it just gets everybody jacked up, including myself."
Villard is also a lifelong Seahawks fan and is honored to take part in the flag raising tradition.
"I just kept thinking about — Chris is going to laugh about this — my favorite player, who [raised] the flag two years ago, Matthew Hasselbeck," Villard said of the flag raising at Station 81 on Tuesday. "That's all I could think of, and I wish I had my Hasselbeck jersey with me."
Spokane County Fire Station 81 was selected as the honorary 12 Flag raiser for Week 8 vs. the San Francisco 49ers. The Seahawks, along with Taima and the Seahawks Dancers, went to Spokane to raise a 12 Flag at the station to celebrate.