Photos from Last Night’s Fire in Wapato Hills Park

I got a text from my wife around noon yesterday saying there was a fire in the park near our house in South Tacoma. We had been walking around the trails in the Wapato Hills Urban Wildlife Habitat a week or so before and noticed evidence of a smaller fire that somehow hadn’t spread beyond a few square yards. When I got another text around 4:00 saying it was still going, I started thinking about the town of Malden and how the whole place went up in flames in only a couple hours.

I remembered thinking how lucky it was that that fire from the week before didn’t take off and burn the whole forest down. I guess it was only a matter of time. The playground at the corner of 64th and Wapato is surrounded by a green field but the rest of the park is comprised of more than 76 acres of oak forest. Around this time of year, everything is bone dry and feels like it would ignite if you even thought about fire.

I kept peeking out my back window to see if the smoke was changing at all. Around 7:30 I grabbed my camera and walked down to the park. I was relieved to see that it was still up in the hills. There are at least 20 homes bordering the park that don’t have a road to buffer them from the dry grass and forest. 

Every house for blocks around had sprinklers going in the front yards and some people were up on their roofs keeping everything wet. Ash and blackened leaves were blowing out of the park and falling like snow.

Fire crews were set up all around the park spraying water into three or four big patches of fire that were creeping down the hillside. A TPD officer was going door to door along Wapato St. telling people it was time to evacuate. He said if it got any worse he’d move down to Prospect St. next. A half mile to the south on 74th, another fire was busy eating its way through two houses, their detached garages, a shed, and a car.

The whole rest of the evening I kept one eye on the back window. After the sun went down the whole park was glowing orange and we could see flames above the rooftops. My wife packed a small bag of clothes and I started making a mental list of all the things I’d want to grab if we had to leave. There were a lot of houses between us and the park but it was definitely on our minds.

I went back to the park around 11:00 and it looked totally different. Everything was dark except where the fire was burning and it was hard to tell how much had been destroyed and how much had been saved. One couple was walking down Prospect toward 60th. They were talking to a couple firefighters to see if they were allowed back in their home at the base of the hill. They had just moved to the neighborhood two months before. The moon came up over the smoke filled horizon just after midnight and I headed home.

When I got up this morning it was hard to say if the fire was out or not since the whole sky was brown with smoke still. It didn’t look as bad as the day before, though. We took our two kids for a walk up to the park to see what everything looked like. I saw a guy watering his flowers across the street from the park and I asked how last night was for him. Coincidentally, he turned out to be a firefighter himself. He was working in Renton the night before and missed the whole thing. Today was his weekend but he said he’d probably work some overtime.

There were still a few fire trucks around the park and the area closest to the houses looked remarkably untouched. There were bare patches of gray and black here and there and parts of the hilltop were clear where there used to be trees. Small plumes of smoke were still blowing up through the trees. It was 9:30 and the crew working all day yesterday had only just been relieved. As of 4:30 this afternoon, they were still putting out hot spots but most of the trucks were gone.

We spoke to one firefighter and she said they still didn’t know how it started. They do know that it started in the northeast corner of the loop trail, though, close to where I had seen the other burned patch a week earlier. Maybe it was a careless smoker walking the trails or maybe one of the few unhoused people who live in the forest. Maybe it was some idiot with leftover fireworks because South Tacoma never seems to run out.

It feels like there should be some kind of ending to this story. Even though the fire is out, it still doesn’t feel finished. Maybe the awkward feeling of uncertainty is fitting, given the awkward, uncertain world we’re living in right now.

Thank you to all the dedicated firefighters of the Tacoma Fire Department for working so hard to keep our neighborhoods safe.

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