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Fires Burning, My Husband Fed And Said Goodbye To Our Pigs

Heidi Cornell and her husband Rick were evacuated three times from their home in the Okanogan area. This is a Google Earth view of Greenacres Road, where they live with their animals.
Google Earth
Heidi Cornell and her husband Rick were evacuated three times from their home in the Okanogan area. This is a Google Earth view of Greenacres Road, where they live with their animals.

My husband is telling me to come home.

“It’s close,” he says.

“How close?”

“Within two miles, coming toward us.”

I rush home. I work five, six miles from where I work, and I tell my bosses. They knew this was going on. They told anybody, leave, go, don’t worry about it. So I yell at my doctor, “I’ve got to go,” and she goes, “Go.” And I grab my purse and head to the car and try to be calm.

At home I see smoke all over. When I pull in my driveway, my husband’s got his Bronco backed up to the front door.

The fire is coming up. At this time of year, it’s dead, dry grass, so the fire is just ripping through...

I have five dogs, two horses, three sheep and three pigs. I get the dogs, but at this point it is getting really bad. It was coming really close.

As we run in and out, the helicopters and the planes are right next to the airport, so we hear them coming up, and they’re dropping water and retardant on the field. And my husband’s like, ‘Oh, we got time. Calm down. Look at the firefighters – they’re going to get it.”

I look at him and I say, “I don’t care if they get it out. We’re getting out of here.”

Then my son calls, and he goes, “Mom, why aren’t you out of there?” My son lives in Malott, which is 10 to 15 miles to the south of us.

I say, “Your father isn’t ready to leave.” My husband acts like he can conquer anything, like he’s Superman. This man is just fearless.

It gets so bad that my son comes down here. He looks at my husband and says, “Let’s go.”

We had no way of getting our big animals out. I have a bad arm, so my son lifts my dogs – I’ve got four that are over 80 pounds.

Down the road are fire trucks and people are evacuating. It’s chaos. We cut the fence so that if it comes to it, the animals could escape.  

My son grabs my husband and says, “Let’s go, let’s go.” My husband goes, “Well, I have to go feed the pigs.”

So he walks out to the pigs and he feeds them and scratches their ears and tells them it’s going to be OK.

The next morning, I call emergency management. I say, “I’m on Greenacres Road. Is anything left? Can you tell me what happened?”

And he goes to check and says, “Greenacres Road is gone.”

I just sat there and my husband, he is so upset about the animals. I mean, he is a 6-foot-2, 200-pound guy who owns a contracting company, and he was just in tears over the animals.

We were still on a level 3 evacuation notice, but my husband wanted to go back. I had my son go with him because I knew Rick wouldn’t do anything to put my son in danger.

So he and my son came up – they had to go back by the airport and walk in. And the animals were OK. The helicopters had dropped large buckets of retardant right on our house and saved our house. The fire came up to three feet of my back door.

When my husband saw the animals were OK, he came back to the house and said, “Everything is burnt, let’s go home. We don’t have to worry about it anymore.”

That night there were 40-mile-an-hour winds. The clouds were orange, so you couldn’t tell what was smoke and what was fire. And we were put on evacuation again. They said, “Get out. You have 20 minutes.”

We took off again and went back to my son’s house. When we went home again, we didn’t unload. We were so tired. We hadn’t slept in two nights. We were just exhausted.

We went to bed and that night, at 11:30 p.m., David our fire chief banged on our door and told us to get out. And we looked out and there was a fire coming from the west this time, coming right up our road. We could see flames.

Three firefighters died ... 

Every time I start feeling bad or start feeling stressed, I just remind myself that I’ve got a home, and nobody in my family died. I had to keep it in perspective.

I’ve been through a lot. We had a son born with birth defects. I almost died in childbirth. We’ve gone through a lot of stuff. We had a hard beginning together, but I have to admit this is one where we felt helpless.

Any other situation in our life, we felt we could fight it, we’re going to make it, no problem. But this one we had to cut and run. There was no fighting.

Heidi Cornell, a resident near Omak in the Okanogan region told her story to KUOW's Marcie Sillman. This interview was edited and condensed.