County firefighters go east to help fire-stricken Methow Valley

EVERETT — After weeks of working at the Oso mudslide, two Snohomish County firefighters are back in a disaster zone, helping aid crews in the Methow Valley amid a series of ravenous wildfires.

Snohomish County Fire District 1 Capt. Shaughn Maxwell grew up in the Methow Valley in Eastern Washington. He has returned to work alongside those who once taught him the ropes.

Lessons from working the March 22 mudslide have helped local crews assist others in Okanogan County, said Maxwell and fellow Fire District 1 firefighter and paramedic Kurt Hilt.

They’ve been providing a unique medical service in an area that at times has been without power, cellphone service and dependable 911 service. Gas lines have been long and residents have been forced to use cash for transactions while debit, credit and ATM devices aren’t functioning.

In the valley, the local crews helped set up a makeshift “M*A*S*H-style” emergency room. They’ve treated those who suffered burns, heat exhaustion and smoke inhalation and other medical problems.

There was no state protocol to summon them to the wildfire scene as backup aid crews. They knew they were needed, and Fire Chief Ed Widdis gave them permission to go, Maxwell said.

Maxwell was on vacation during the first waves of the wildfire response. His former mentor, Cindy Button, is a paramedic and director at the Aero Methow Rescue Service, a private nonprofit that provides emergency medical services to the rural Methow Valley.

Button and Maxwell talked. Then Maxwell showed up.

“He walked in right at the height of the intensity, right when he was needed the most,” Button said.

The Methow Valley is a small community, easily cut off from the world, Button said. She didn’t have to explain that to Maxwell. A graduate of Liberty Bell High School in Winthrop, he already knew.

The nearest hospitals are about an hour’s drive. The roads were shut down.

Maxwell, Hilt and Fire District 1’s Dr. Richard Campbell helped Button plan and manage resources. They positioned folks in fire stations and ambulance centers so people could walk in to report emergencies if 911 wasn’t working.

They set up stretchers, cots and room dividers in Aero Methow’s training room, which was under generator power. Three Rivers Hospital in Brewster also helped.

Maxwell and others have found themselves moved by the connections between Oso and Twisp, two communities that on some maps don’t look so far apart, he said.

“We’ve run into people all over this valley,” he said. “Fire District 1 runs from Everett to Brier. We’re running into people on these calls from Everett, from Brier, from Mukilteo.”

For about a week, the aid crews were living in the temporary emergency room, Button said.

One initiative stressed by Maxwell and Hilt was the need for mental-health services for those affected by the fires, Maxwell said. They learned from Oso the difference crisis counselors can make.

Many of the things they did in Oso, they needed to do in Twisp, too, such as contacting livestock experts, Maxwell said. Some of the phone numbers he needed were still in his phone from March.

“It was like we were able to flip a switch and turn all those relationships back on,” he said. “Everybody already knew each other. It really made the wheels turn faster.”

The crews already are thinking about what would happen in Snohomish County if a disaster knocked out 911 service, as happened near the wildfires. They are taking notes to share when they get back.

Rikki King: 425-339-3449; rking@heraldnet.com.

For information on donating to the wildfire recovery efforts in the Methow Valley, contact the North Cascades National Bank at 1-800-603-9342 or visit www.aeromethow.org.

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