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I have a sometime neighbor I'll call Jack. It's not his real name, but short for Jackass, which is an accurate description of him. He lives in Seattle, but has a cabin along the creek in our canyon in Eastern Washington State. He spends maybe 10 days a year here, and in that short amount of time manages to piss off the rest of the neighbors.

One of the ways he does that involves the beavers. On his property, on the other side of the creek from his cabin, on the hill above the creek, about 50 yards off the road, some beavers passing through found a spring and decided it could be developed into a beaver homestead.

They built one small dam and created a small, shallow pond that no one noticed, but these were not beavers with low standards or ready to give up easily. So a little farther along the hillside, still well above the creek, they built another dam.

The new dam is a marvel of engineering, gently curved and buttressed on the downstream side to make it stronger. Everyone in the neighborhood knew where the beaver pond was, and occasionally would stop to take a look at it, or remove the trees the beavers dropped across the road instead of into their pond. And it looked like this:

Jack worried that the beaver pond would flood his driveway, so he hired people to live trap and remove the beavers. Which they thought they did.

The next spring, the dam was in tact, so Jack hired other people to breach the dam and drain the pond. But the dam proved difficult to breach, and the next day, the breach was repaired by some of the original beavers, or perhaps new beavers who liked the site and decided to reclaim it.

On Saturday night, September 8th a thunderstorm passed across Eastern Washington State. It dumped little rain - we only registered 0.06 inches - but spawned prodigious amounts of lightning. The lightning started hundreds of fires. We were between two fires, both part of what's now called the Wenatchee Fire Complex - the Byrd Canyon fire to the south, and the First Creek fire just a mile and a thousand feet above us.

Byrd Canyon grew quickly and moved into the coulee south of us, but not far enough to be a danger there. What was more dangerous was that it moved up US97A along the Columbia River. The coulee is one exit from our canyon, the other is US97A, and with a fire behind us and 30 MPH winds, we might need an exit in a hurry. They stopped the Byrd Canyon fire far enough south of us that it never presented a problem, but that fire put us at Level 1 evacuation status.

The First Creek fire was only about 30 acres by Tuesday, so it was growing slowly, but it was surrounded by a lot of fuel, in very steep, rugged terrain, and potentially threatened a lot of homes, including ours. With all of the fires burning in Eastern Washington, we were very lucky to be given a high priority and a lot of resources. Every day we had 2 helicopters on our fire, which is exceptional for a fire as small as ours in a big fire season.

One of the helicopters looked like this:

It's a single-seat, twin-rotor, Russian-made helicopter that was designed for logging, but in this situation, it was dragging a bucket holding 200 to 300 gallons of water at the end of the line visible in the picture above.

Correction: It's not a Russian helicopter - it's a Kaman K-MAX.
The distance from the front edge of the fire to the lake is about 3 miles one way, so each round trip for the helicopters was over 6 miles. It was likely the pilot, or an alert firefighter, that spotted the beaver pond, which is about a mile or less from the front edge of the fire. And the front edge of the fire was starting to threaten homes in our canyon - in the end, it reached within a few hundred feet of the house farthest up canyon, and was just behind the top of the ridge behind our house. The picture above is the helicopter dipping its bucket in the beaver pond below.

Thursday, September 13th, was our 31st wedding anniversary. Already we'd had helicopters flying back and forth overhead since the previous Monday - a neighbor below us who was an Army nurse said it reminded her of Viet Nam, and I expected either the them from M*A*S*H or Flight of the Valkyrie to begin playing any minute.

When Deputy Rodriguez stopped by to let us know we were on Level 1 status, he said they'd call if we moved to Level 2 or 3 (the levels, 1,2 and 3, are basically 'Ready, Set, Go'). The next day, all phone service was interrupted - land lines, cell phones, fiber internet. Our satellite internet was working, but neither the local radio statio, the community news website, nor the Forest Service were putting out much information, and what info there was, was inaccurate or useless. Listening to the radio gave me more information about the fire at Grand Coulee 100 miles away, than the fire less than a mile from my house and visible from the radio station's offices.

But on the morning of our anniversary, the phone service had been restored, and when the phone rang, it was someone informing us we were now at Level 2. We're the top of a phone tree - we call 2 or 3 other people, who each call another 2 or 3 other people, and that continues until everyone in our neighborhood has been notified. After making our calls, we began to prepare for evacuation. We were already pretty well prepared for a fire, but there are parts of daily life - lumber in the carport from a current project, furniture on the porch, etc. - that need to be dealt with before you leave your house.

In addition we rounded up clothing, computers, documents, photos, pets and supplies in case we needed to leave. The call for Level 3 came on the afternoon of our anniversary, around 5PM. We had already made arrangements to stay with a friend in town, as had everybody else who was leaving.

During our evacuation, we were able to return home during the day to do things - make sure the sprinklers hadn't fallen over (one had), collect stuff we hadn't planned on needing, like a printer, or just showering or doing laundry at home. We could have slept at home too, but the point of a Level 3 is that the situation is dangerous and you need to be alert to any rapid changes in conditions.

But every day at the house, the little green helicopter was dipping at the beaver pond and returning to dump water on the fire. To go the half-mile from my house, turn around, fill his bucket in the small pond, and return to my house on the way back to the fire took the pilot less than a minute. The pilot was staying with a friend in town, and he said the pond was important to saving the valley we live in. He thought it tripled the amount of water he could deliver, not having to travel the additional distance to the lake, watch out for boats on the water, and contend with the other helicopters on ours and other fires. He could also deliver more water without flying back to the airport to refuel as often. Possibly because of the extra water, the fire remained a surface fire and was stopped in our area by direct attack - fire line right in front of the advancing fire - rather than a massive burn out operation that had been planned for right behind our houses.

During and after every fire, signs spring up thanking the firefighters, and deservedly so. The crews who fought the fire, the crews who did structure protection around our house, and the volunteer firefighters from towns hundreds of miles away who visited us multiple times daily to see if more work was needed or just to make sure there were no spot fires, were all top notch, professional, and friendly people. The two guys supervising all of the efforts on our fire even took 15 minutes to explain progress and strategy to us and other neighbors.

But we thought the beavers needed some thanks too, so a neighbor made up this sign and nailed it to the fence in front of Jack's driveway:

The spring didn't supply enough water to keep the pond full, so the Forest Service came in with a pump, ran hose down to the creek below, and kept the pond full. Unfortunately, the hose caused some damage to the beaver dam one night. The next morning, when the firefighters showed up for work, the damage had been repaired, and the hose slapped with mud to hold it in place.

We had our status returned to Level 2 Wednesday night and came home Thursday morning. We're still at Level 2 because the fire is still burning, and the forecast is for another dry lightning storm possible in our area from late tonight through tomorrow night. The beaver pond is still there, but hopefully it won't be needed again soon - and Jack is letting the beavers stay.

Originally posted to badger on Fri Sep 21, 2012 at 01:54 PM PDT.

Also republished by Headwaters, J Town, Backyard Science, and Community Spotlight.

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