Tacoma longshoremen from ILWU 23 trek to Eastern Washington to assist firefighters

Dean McGrath answers his cellphone and says he’s in a vehicle slicing through thick smoke and falling ash at 90 mph.

“We’re making an emergency delivery to Loomis,” he said.

The crackle and scratch on the line may be the sound of flames, or perhaps it’s the lack of clear reception up in the Okanogan wilderness of north-central Washington.

“We grabbed supplies, axes, the things they need,” McGrath said. “Boots, socks, batteries, it’s such a logistical nightmare.”

McGrath is there in part because of his logistical expertise, and in part to heal a wound.

As president of Tacoma-based International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 23, McGrath is leading a group of 17 union members who have volunteered to assist firefighters and residents suffering the worst wildfires in state history.

“We’ve been linked up with the Colville tribes and a distribution center in Okanogan. Donations are coming in and going out as fast as they come in,” he said.

Among the services requested, Local 23 volunteers have rescued horses and livestock, delivered water by tanker and sorted and distributed donated goods. The local itself has collected at least $8,000 in donations, and fundraising continues.

And amid the devastation, fences are being mended.

After a slowdown at Washington ports last winter, farmers and other growers east of the Cascades blamed the longshoremen, in part, for delays that resulted in ruined export crops.

“We’re trying to form a relationship with these growers,” McGrath said. “There’s so much of the contract battle that was misrepresented. Our worlds came together in a negative way. I wanted them to know that their livelihood is very important. Our success is linked to their success. When the opportunity came to reach out, it just all worked out.”

McGrath estimated that he would be in the area through Saturday. Other crews will follow, he said.

And then comes the future, after the smoke clears.

“We’ve been talking to organizations about their long-term needs,” McGrath said. “As needs change and they get into recovery mode from crisis mode, we’ll be able to participate.”

C.R. Roberts: 253-597-8535