Emerging Leader Russell Wiita (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Emerging Leader Russell Wiita (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Emerging Leader: Russell Wiita guides his hometown through flames

The mayor of Sultan is taking lessons learned from the Bolt Creek fire into the future.

This is one of 12 finalists for The Herald Business Journal’s annual Emerging Leaders awards for 2022. The winner will be named at an event on April 13.

Russell Wiita, 28

Mayor of Sultan

Like countless college students before him, Russell Wiita remembers many never-ending nights spent locked in a deep philosophical quandary or political debate on a friend’s dorm room couch.

Growing up in Sultan, Wiita was raised in a “fairly conservative” environment, he said.

When he attended the University of Washington, Wiita was suddenly faced with viewpoints and beliefs and issues he’d never before encountered. Years later, he’s still not sure why he decided to dive headfirst into engaging with those new and foreign ideas, he said.

“It was maybe partially out of self-preservation, because if I wasn’t willing to make friends with people who had different beliefs than I did, I would have been pretty lonely,” Wiita said. “We didn’t change anyone’s mind or solve all the problems of the world, but it gave me the opportunity to see issues from a different perspective, to see the reason people approached things differently than I did.”

Now serving as mayor of the small town where he grew up and as a legislative aide to Snohomish County Council member Nate Nehring, Wiita credits those eye-opening college conversations with helping him build bridges and connect with the people he serves. That’s part of what led him to spend time with residents who’d been evacuated as the Bolt Creek Fire spread rapidly last summer.

As Sultan’s mayor, Wiita was one of the first to hear about the blaze early that September morning. He spent the coming days shuttling between incident command centers around the Sky Valley. Whenever he could, he spent time talking with folks waiting for news from home.

“A big takeaway was that some of these people who’d been evacuated from as far as Index was that they didn’t want to go all the way to Monroe to evacuate,” Wiita said. “They had food in their freezers or pets at home they couldn’t bring along, and they wanted to be as close as they could whenever they were able to go back,” he said.

In Bolt Creek’s aftermath, Wiita is using those insights to shape how he and other regional leaders approach planning for future emergencies. He’s leveraging the skills gained through that harrowing experience as he helps guide his hometown into the future, even though he acknowledges much of the work he’s doing won’t pay off for years to come.

‘I’ve obviously got ideology that is kind of inherent to me and my experiences. But I don’t let that stop me from working with anyone who’s got a good idea, or working with people that I, frankly, might disagree with,” Wiita said. “Who knows how long I’m going to be here, but I might plant the seeds for something to happen. We may not actually see the results of that until I’m long gone from being mayor for the city of Sultan and, and accepting that and understanding that you’re part of a bigger picture is crucial.”

Riley Haun: 425-339-3192; riley.haun@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @RHaunID.

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