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Originally published Tuesday, August 14, 2012 at 4:09 PM

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Neighbors in fire's path 'running for our lives'

Neighbors race together to keep the Taylor Bridge wildfire from burning their homes.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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It's cool anytime neighbors join together to accomplish good stuff. People working... MORE
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ELLENSBURG — When he first spied the smoke over the ridge above his Horse Canyon home, Greg Campbell was relaxing in his neighbor's yard, drinking Gatorade and talking home repairs.

Ninety minutes later, the valley's notoriously unpredictable, swirling winds had already sent flames racing downhill. The fire chewed through dense ponderosa pine and Douglas fir, ripped through one neighbor's house and started coming for Campbell's.

That's when fellow Canyon resident Jeremy Hink showed up in his boss's bulldozer.

"It came up really quickly," Campbell said. "We had literally no time, but Jeremy was out there cutting line, doing everything he could to protect us all."

When Kittitas County Sheriff's deputies ordered the neighborhood to evacuate Monday, Hink and others already had started scraping a dirt trough between the burning hillside and the farm homes on Bettas Road. Campbell lost a well pump house and a rototiller. His three snowmobiles went up so hot and fast that the aluminum melted and pooled in a trail near his driveway.

But the charred and smoking-black grass stopped within 15 feet of his house, which was still standing midday Tuesday.

Here, one hillside over from the narrow, winding Yakima River Canyon where the bulk of the Taylor Bridge wildfire is being fought, neighbors are banding together trying to hold the line on their own. They are digging fire breaks with shovels and corralling livestock and pooling resources to keep each others' homes safe.

Hink, who makes his living digging underground utilities, kept arriving with another piece of borrowed equipment.

"There are a lot of other priorities for the firefighters right now," Hink said. "We are kind of on our own."

The risk isn't going away soon. Throughout late morning Tuesday flames could always be seen a few hundred yards in any direction from the row of houses on either side of the street.

"I'm worried, really worried," said Bill Fitzgerald, as he stood in his driveway watching trees burst into orange a few football fields away.

By midday flames were gobbling up the pines one after another and planes were dropping loads of orange fire retardant behind his house.

But spot fires also were ripping through dry, tall grasses across the road in front of his house, about a quarter mile away.

Shortly after noon, a team of about 10 neighbors scraped a dirt line near a house with shovels as sparks and embers picked up by the wind kept starting small, new blazes in a hilly field. Within 20 minutes another gust came up from nowhere, sending the flames racing across the pasture so quickly that everyone had to sprint downhill for the road.

"That was too close," said Liam Shaw, who has been working to put out these fires since late Monday.

Said the home's owner, David Firth, "That truly was us running for our lives."

Firth said he never heard a wildfire erupt before. "It has a distinctive and impressive sound. There's a seriousness about it. You really don't know what's going to happen next."

As the friends and neighbors, dusty and sweating from exertion, leaned against their trucks and watched the blazing field of fire make a run toward another friend's home, someone muttered, "Oh, man."

But just before the flames reached the house, a small cheer went up. Down the road a water truck had arrived and started heading up the winding driveway, dousing everything in sight.

It was Hink, again, in another borrowed vehicle. He quickly turned to dry alfalfa, making a soupy mess until it was clear the house would be OK, at least for the moment.

"He's been out here all night," said his wife, Kelly Hink. "He said he just wasn't going to stand by and do nothing."

Neither were his neighbors.

By 2:30 p.m.Tuesday, Jeremy Hink and his neighbors sat in a truck bed downing cold drinks, sure the worst was over. The Department of Natural Resources had a crew working hillside trees and the winds finally seemed to be cooperating.

But they were wrong. A half-hour later the flames jumped back in the tall grass, burning what looked like giant crop circles into a field of scrub brush. Within minutes the entire pasture was an inferno, with the fire making runs up into the trees and back down toward the road within 50 yards of houses owned by Hink and Fitzgerald.

The street came alive with scurrying men and women as they jumped on small tractors and cut through each other's fields, barreling up the hillside into the flames to cut more lines in the dirt to try to control the burn.

Hink drained his water truck and backed it up to an aboveground swimming pool, sucking up all the water he could.

But by then the fire had carved a new arc around Fitzgerald's ranch racing up to the road and threatening to lick across the pavement. Quick spade work by a dozen neighbors cut a new line in the blackened soil all around Fitzgerald's home.

Meanwhile, directly across the street, another patch of flames chewed their way to within 30 feet of a house under construction.

By then it was 6 p.m. and the heat of the day had passed. The evening was bringing fresh gusts of squirrely wind and new flames.

"This thing doesn't want to quit," said Campbell, as he watched flames surround a house on a hill but somehow managed to spare the residence. "It's just making me sick to watch."

Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or cwelch@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @craigawelch.

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