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Communities near Alder Lake fire collecting items to say thanks to firefighters

Bill Lewis, an Eatonville real estate agent who is coordinating support for firefighters fighting the Alder Lake fire, watches the fire with binoculars on Thursday.
Bill Lewis, an Eatonville real estate agent who is coordinating support for firefighters fighting the Alder Lake fire, watches the fire with binoculars on Thursday. Staff photographer

Bill Lewis knows something about maintaining morale in tough situations.

Standing across Alder Lake from a 250-acre forest fire on Thursday afternoon, the Eatonville Realtor rolled up the left sleeve of his shirt and reveald a series of scars.

He was shot twice while in the Army in the Gulf War in the early 1990s.

He remembers that few things boosted troops’ morale during the war quicker than care packages from home.

“It was the goodies,” he said. “It was first come, first served and everybody lined up hoping to get a taste.

“It’s like Christmas.”

It’s a joy he and other Eatonville residents want to give the firefighters battling the blaze eight miles south of town.

“It’s a way for us to say thank you,” said Eatonville resident Tammy Schroeder.

A lightning strike started the fire in July, and it’s burning ground cover below 200-foot-tall, old-growth trees, said a state Department of Natural Resources spokesman, Doug McClelland.

“Because the ground is so steep (60 to 80 percent grade) and inaccessible, it’s not safe to put firefighters down there,” U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Kristen Bowles said.

“They tried a couple times, and it just wasn’t working.”

During the day, smoke can be seen rising from the trees, and the orange glow of the fire is visible at night by those watching from across the lake.

Flames have been slowly spreading across the undeveloped land to the southeast.

“This isn’t actually that rapid of growth when you consider other fires that are burning in the state,” Bowles said.

Crews have been widening and connecting forest roads to contain the blaze and keep it from reaching homes in the area of Pleasant Valley Road, near Mineral.

On Wednesday, with the fire about a mile from the homes, residents were told to prepare to evacuate, if needed. Some forest roads are closed as crews work to fight the fire.

In Eatonville, Lewis administers the Facebook page Eatonville Sirens, which has served as a virtual base camp for community members looking to support the 107 firefighters managing the blaze since it was reported Aug. 11.

“That’s the way our community is,” said Stephanie Welfringer. “If there’s something we can do that will help, we’re happy to give it to them.”

The Department of Natural Resources and the Forest Service, the agencies managing the fire, say the firefighters have the supplies they need.

But Lewis says the community wants to give them the extras, “the goodies,” that boost morale — chewing tobacco, energy drinks, gum, sunflower seeds.

One donation box Thursday included all the fixings for s’mores.

“Those guys have a sense of humor,” Lewis said of the firefighters. “They love this stuff.”

Lewis is collecting donations from community members and local businesses and then looking for ways to get them into the hands of the firefighters.

He’s stopped firefighters in town and given them boxes of gifts to pass out to their colleagues. Late on Thursday evening, he gave a box of donations to McClelland for delivery.

Schroeder was on Lillie Dale Road, where people gather to watch the spreading fire, when a box of donations was handed off to a young firefighter.

“The look in his eyes was priceless,” she said.

Hunter Welfringer, an 18-year-old from Eatonville, has a friend fighting the fire. He received a text Thursday from the friend saying the gifts were appreciated.

On Thursday evening, a statement from Bowles was released stating that firefighters were grateful for the donations and support from the community.

But, she said, “We’re self-sufficient. If people want to donate and help, we would like to see them donate maybe to the Red Cross, or the Wildland Firefighter Foundation, places like that might need more support.”

Eatonville residents were undeterred when they heard the request. They plan to keep collecting goodies and finding ways to get them to the firefighters.

David Weyte, a Gifford Pinchot National Forest wilderness trail ranger who is helping fight the fire, delivered some of the gifts to the firefighters earlier in the week.

“We really appreciate what the community is doing,” he said. “It’s absolutely awesome.”

Weyte talked about a fellow firefighter who’d run out of chewing tobacco and was borrowing from friends, none of whom used his favorite kind.

“He wasn’t liking it,” Weyte said.

Typically during big forest fires, a commissary is set up so firefighters can buy items they want. Purchases are deducted from their paychecks. There isn’t a commissary trailer for the Alder Lake fire.

At Thursday’s briefing, a box of items donated by the local communities arrived. It included several cans of chewing tobacco. Somebody tossed a can to the firefighter who’d run out.

He caught it. Looked at it. Then a smile spread across his face.

“Hey,” he said excitedly, “it’s my brand.”

FIRE INFO

Kristen Bowles of the U.S. Forest Service said residents should also look online at dnr.wa.gov to see what the state Department of Natural Resources suggests for protecting homes from wildfire.

For more information, residents can call 360-740-1152 or visit http://lewiscountywa.gov/.

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