Jessica Nemnich teaches agriculture classes at a high school in Marysville, Washington. Her husband, Robert, owns a small excavation company. They live on a 25-acre farm with their four kids on the outskirts of Darrington. The town of about 1,400 is nestled in a corridor rich with rivers and forests, on the western flank of the North Cascades.
Both Nemnichs are volunteer firefighters with Darrington Fire District 24. Last Saturday they responded to a call about a mudslide near the town of Oso.
They travelled to the scene with one other firefighter in a Ford F-350 utility rig, expecting to find a barn, or maybe a house, pushed onto Highway 530, a road that Jessica uses regularly to commute to her teaching job. “When we pulled up,” Robert said, “all we saw was a roof in the road, and a tree.”
Robert and Jessica Nemnich, volunteer firefighters with District 24.
A 15-foot-high wall of mud had completely barricaded Highway 530. The Stillaguamish River, dammed by slide debris, was backing up and water was flowing across the roadway. Robert saw bystanders smoking cigarettes near propane tanks.
The week before Jessica had responded to a car accident that required a helicopter evacuation. For a small fire district that was an out of the ordinary operation. But she knew immediately that this mudslide was an emergency on an entirely different scale.
She could hear yelling.
“We had people from two different directions hollering for help,” she said. “There was a little boy screaming that somebody was stuck.”
The volunteer firefighters tried to assess the situation, worried about hazards like downed electrical wires and flooding. Looking at the massive pile of mud, Jessica was unsure what kind of equipment and assistance to even ask for as she radioed other responders.
Darrington Fire District 24 is staffed entirely by volunteers, with a core group of about 12-15 firefighters. Among them are five married couples, including the Nemnichs.
The district is headquartered in a one-story, dark blue station, with red trim and white bay doors. It is one of the last buildings drivers pass as they head west out of Darrington toward Oso, which is about 15 miles away on Highway 530. The steep and craggy north face of Whitehorse Mountain provides a dramatic alpine backdrop. Across the street is an IGA grocery store. About a mile to the west is the Hampton Lumber Mills.
Although District 24 is a small outfit, it was one of the first to respond after a rain-soaked hillside collapsed unexpectedly last Saturday around 11 a.m., sweeping away dozens of houses and at least 16 lives and leaving a nearly one-square-mile wasteland of mud, trees and debris.
Before other agencies arrived with helicopters, hovercraft and rescue dogs, District 24 firefighters worked alongside local residents, family members and volunteers from other rural fire districts to remove survivors from the rubble. They used chainsaws, their hands and ATVs. They waded through deep mud and watched as the unstable hillside continued to collapse, shaking the ground as they worked.
In total, they rescued 13 people from the east side of the debris field last Saturday, according to the district’s health and safety officer, Jeff McClelland. “Anytime you do that, it’s a great thing,” he said. A volunteer firefighter for over 20 years, McClelland's full-time job is managing a farm about six miles west of Darrington. The farm produces artisanal goat cheese.
His wife, Jan, works with him — on the farm and as a volunteer firefighter with the district. They arrived at the slide scene together last Saturday.
“When I pulled up,” he said, “I looked at it and thought, 'no.' "
A woman told them about the approximate location of an injured man. Along with a third volunteer firefighter they made their way through the debris field. It took them an hour and a half to cover a quarter mile. McClelland was loaded down with heavy gear. At times the mud swallowed him up to his waist.
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