LEAVENWORTH, Wash. - Among the countless evacuees sharing harrowing wildfire survival stories in Leavenworth, Washington, retired firefighters Don Hirschman and Roger Keller have one they’ll share forever.
They drove directly through a wall of fire on a road filled with flames to escape the inferno approaching the town of Brewster, Washington.
“A sheriff’s deputy said ‘you have to get out right now,’” said Hirschman. “All you could see was flames ahead.” Keller added: There was fire on both sides of the road, and it was completely covering the road too!”
Hirschman’s wife, Judy, snapped photos out the window, in disbelief.
“I'd been a firefighter 28 years,” said Hirschman. “I’d never see anything like this. There was like whirlwinds of fire moving behind an SUV we were following. I've never seen anything like that!”
Keller said the biggest hazard about driving on top of fire is the road disappears.
“If you miscalculated the road, then you're off! That's a gravel road, and if you're off the side you can just about forget it!”
As smoke and ash from the fires drifted into Leavenworth, evacuees also drifted in seeking shelter. Locals told KIRO-7 tourism is down dramatically from its usual summer pace.
Arlene Wagner, curator of the Leavenworth Nutcracker Museum since the 1980s, says closed highways and smoke have kept people away. “We are open for business, but I could tell there were fewer tourists by how many people came to the museum, about a third,” she said.
Wagner remembers the last time fire threatened Leavenworth--in 1994--fire crews kept the city safe by surrounding it on every side.
“There were so many fire trucks here from 20-some states, and the city was absolutely lined with them,” she said.