Embers of Solidarity: East of Hayden Lake’s Collective Stand Against the Threat of Wildfires 

April 12, 2024

By Carly Agnew | Photos by Terina Thompson Photography and Catherine Hibbard, Ridge Creek Fire PIO 

(Republished from Hayden Lake Neighbors magazine)

Last summer, nestled amidst the towering trees and untamed beauty of our region, a fierce adversary emerged: raging wildfires. As the flames licked at the edges of close-knit communities, remarkable stories unfolded – stories of unity, compassion, and unwavering support that showcased the true strength of our residents. 

Driven by gusty winds and dry summer conditions, one of the hotspots—the Ridge Creek Fire—quickly became a menacing force threatening the homes of East of Hayden Lake residents. But they were ready. As a community, they were fire wise and ready to act with a strength that emerges when a community unites against the odds. 

Here, in their own words, is the story of how the East of Hayden Lake Firewise community began: 

We’re building a cohesive community of neighbors who want to learn how to protect their homes against the threat of wildfire. It matters, because we live right next to 3.3 million acres of national forest that hasn’t seen a major burn since the mid 1800s, plus 200 acres of state land that’s managed in a manner that makes wildfire even more likely. 

Karen’s Story 

After my family hired arborists to clean up our 100-acre tree farm, where we’ve lived for 34 years, it not only looked beautiful, it felt safer. It was a 100-acre firebreak, protecting not only us but our neighbors too.  

So we asked Fire Marshal Tyler Drechsel (Northern Lakes Fire District) what else we could do, and he showed us simple, affordable ways we can further reduce our home’s wildfire vulnerabilities. He told us that for some houses, major overhauls might be needed, such as replacing a damaged or combustible roof with composite shingles or metal. We learned that one of the most common causes of house-fires is red-hot embers riding on the wind from a fire miles away, quietly landing on roof, cedar deck, pine needles, etc.  

And, we learned that in a wildfire, triage comes into play: Homes whose wildfire vulnerabilities haven’t been addressed are unlikely to survive and not worth risking firefighters’ lives, so they are, quite legally, passed by. 

We wanted our neighbors to benefit from all this! So I organized a neighborhood meeting. Drechsel and deputy Chris Larson addressed our standing-room-only crowd, and by the end of 2021 every applicant had gotten the required (and free) professional evaluation of their home’s wildfire vulnerabilities, and we officially became the active, federally certified, nationally recognized East of Hayden Lake Firewise community, with 17 contiguous households covering about 700 acres. 

A few months later I got a call from Tammy, whose neighborhood is just a mile south of ours. She asked if her more densely populated neighborhood could join us. I got permission from Idaho’s Firewise liaison to say yes! Our growth has continued from there. As of this writing, we’re over 100 households covering more than 1700 acres, and there’s a teetering stack of about 70 new applicants, waiting for the next wave of home evaluations. 

Tammy’s Story

I was born and raised in Idaho and have always been a “country, mountain loving” kind of gal at heart.  

As a young teen I spent hours in the mountains, exploring, hiking and camping and have always just wanted to live a serene peaceful life with my family in a cozy home in the mountains. When my husband and I moved with our two children to North Idaho 30 years ago, my dream was to move out in the “wilds'” with nothing but trees and wild-lands for neighbors. We have been very fortunate to have been able to purchase our property of four acres here on Hayden Lake, and after clearing it of trees and underbrush, we built that cozy home I always dreamed about. I could not have asked for a better place to have our grandchildren visit, and for the making of special memories and traditions that will be carried on in our family legacy. 

With all the trees and natural vegetation around our home and throughout the neighborhood, the very hot and dry summers are worrisome, of course, and we’ve even had a neighbor lose their home to a fire, right in the hottest part of the summer. We were so lucky to have other neighbors that were on the ball and willing to help get the fire controlled, because our whole neighborhood could have been engulfed quickly, with the response times of emergency fire trucks being 30 minutes or more. Summer is always such a scary time, and as more and more families move into the area and build homes the anxiety about fires increases. 

When I first heard about the Firewise program and spoke to Karen about how it all worked; I knew it was exactly what we needed here in my neighborhood. I went door to door with my Firewise flyer and personally talked to neighbors and friends, making a list of everyone interested in the program. When I realized how eager everyone was to be included and how fast they started working on their own properties, it only made sense to continue spreading the word throughout the entire east side of Hayden Lake. The enthusiasm and support of all the new members of the Firewise community keeps me motivated and excited to share our program with more and more neighbors, so they too can become involved in making us all much more fire safe! 

Karen and Tammy shared that what they love most about this project is that it’s turned a smattering of clique-like small neighborhoods and isolated homeowners into an expanding and increasingly cohesive community. 

“We know each other’s names, we look after each other, yet we’re still self-reliant, independent, WUI (Wildland Urban Interface) people — we all accept certain inconveniences for the privilege of living “in the sticks,” where there’s peace, quiet, privacy and very few unexpected knocks on the door. To the surprise of many, being official members of this Firewise community is the best of two worlds: We still have peace and privacy, and at the same time, all our members have our contact information, which is vital in any kind of emergency. Equally vital: nobody abuses that information. Respect for each other’s privacy is a key part of WUI life.” 

Developing Bonds of a Firewise Community 

Firewise USA is a national program governed by each state – and in East of Hayden Lake, by Tyre Holfeltz of the CDA office of Idaho Department of Lands.  

Karen shared, “As we grow, we’re increasingly well placed to receive grant funding that is strictly administered through IDL and the Office of Emergency Management. For example, in 2022 we were awarded a $250,000 grant specifically for cleaning up private forestlands (exactly what my family did five years ago at our own expense).” 

IDL appoints professional foresters to select— and with the owner’s permission— thin, limb and de-shrub their private forests, mulching the slash. The result is gorgeous and quite obviously safer for everybody. Key to the selection process is bang for the buck: the greatest wildfire-squashing benefit for the most residents. 

To learn why this program is working for the East of Hayden Lake community and hear what members are saying, follow this link to view the full article.

Want to learn more about becoming Firewise? 

Visit www.nfpa.org/Education-and-Research/Wildfire/Firewise-USA today.