When a neighbor’s house caught fire on one of the hottest days in Lewis County history, rural Chehalis residents stepped up to take care of firefighters and each other.
One neighbor in particular risked his own safety to rescue an occupant trapped in the burning structure on Kirkland Road.
“This would have likely been a fatality fire if not for a heroic neighbor who noticed the fire and ran down to help,” Lewis County Fire District 5 wrote in a Facebook post.
When told that firefighters and community members were impressed with his actions, Josh Weinke wasn’t keen on accepting the praise.
“Oh, I don’t know about all that,” he told The Chronicle. “Someone hollered for help and we all know each other.”
Weinke, owner of Reliable Residential Construction in Chehalis, sent his employees home early due to the intense heat on Monday and was cooling off at home when his teenage daughter ran in just after 2 p.m. to tell him she thought the neighbor’s house was on fire.
“I went straight over there,” he said.
On the way, he ran into a man named Tom, one of the home’s two elderly occupants, and asked if anyone was still inside the house. There was: Tom’s wife, Darlene. She had ambulatory issues and was stuck on the couch roughly 15 feet from the door, unable to leave on her own.
Weinke, stopping briefly to feel the front door, went inside.
“It was pretty inflamed by then,” he told The Chronicle.
The smoke was too dense to see through, so he got down on the ground and started crawling, banging on the ground as he went so Darlene would know where he was. Soon enough, he saw her legs and was able to pull her outside.
Tom was treated for minor injuries and Darlene was taken by ambulance to Providence Centralia Hospital for treatment of minor burns, but there were no serious injuries.
“They were extremely fortunate,” said District 5 Chief Dan Mahoney.
Even though it only took six minutes total for crews to arrive after neighbors called 911 — three minutes and 21 seconds from the time 911 dispatched District 5 — Mahoney said the incident would have likely been a fatal fire had Weike not stepped in to help when he did.
District 5 firefighters arrived to find “extreme fire conditions that had consumed the home and spread to multiple outbuildings” along with grass and natural vegetation around the structure that was “burning out of control,” according to a Facebook post.
Additional units were called in, with Lewis County Fire District 6, Lewis County Fire District 15, the Riverside Fire Authority, the Department of Natural Resources and American Medical Response all responding to help contain the blaze and treat both injuries and heat exhaustion.
“It was an extremely hot fire,” said Mahoney. “We were dying out there. Literally.”
Of the 25 total personnel who responded, five had to be treated for heat exhaustion.
The Riverside Fire Authority eventually set up a rehabilitation center at the site to help firefighters stay cool, but it was the neighbors — Fred and Merry Hart, Frank Corbin and his niece — who took care of firefighters initially. They provided cold drinking water and could be seen pouring cool water on the firefighters.
“They were gems. They were just gems,” said Mahoney.
The fire completely destroyed three structures on the quarter-acre property and was “very close to taking out a couple more,” said Mahoney, but firefighters successfully stopped the fire from spreading and kept it contained to the quarter-acre lot.
Crews actively fought the fire for four to five hours, Mahoney said, and it was completely contained by 6 p.m.
District 5 crews “babysat” the fire throughout the night to ensure it completely burned out.
Lewis County fire investigators have yet to determine the cause of the fire, but Mahoney told The Chronicle it most likely started at the rear of the house.