Author(s): Jesse Roman. Published on September 4, 2014.

MOST OF THE 100 OR so full-time residents of Central Washington’s Chiliwist Valley settled there because they wanted a change of pace—something a little more laid-back than the lifestyle they left behind along the more urban coast.

But on the evening of July 17, there were few places on Earth more chaotic or more terrifying.

Driven by high winds, the fire that would become the largest in the history of Washington State—now known as the Carlton Complex Fire—tore through the community of Chiliwist. It travelled an astonishing 30 miles that day, expanding by more than 123,000 acres in just nine hours, from about 3 p.m. to midnight.

“The fire sounded like a freight train,” said Peggy Kelly, who has lived in the Chiliwist Valley with her husband, Noble, for the last 21 years.

At least 41 structures “were gone in an instant,” she said. Despite the speed of the fire and the damage to property, no one from Chiliwist was injured or killed in the blaze.

Living in fire country, the Kellys feared this day would come. In 2012, Peggy spearheaded a grassroots effort to enroll Chiliwist into NFPA’s Firewise Communities Program, which helps communities plan and take preventive action to limit wildfire damage. In short time, the Firewise community meetings in Chiliwist became more frequent and better attended, to the point that Peggy now sees them as a turning point for this community of largely independent-minded neighbors.

“I think we started to come together as community that supported each other and that’s what’s shown up now,” she said. “The firefighters have said that they have never seen a community come together like this one to support each other. That’s partially because of Firewise.”
While Chiliwist was only officially recognized as a Firewise Community in September 2013, fire officials told the Kellys that at least four homes in town were saved in part because the added defensible space around the properties allowed firefighters to get in and create more effective fire lines.

For this and many other reasons, Peggy is more resolved than ever to continue to promote Firewise principles in Chiliwist, and she believes her neighbors are, too.

“People are seeing the importance of this program and what it can do,” she said. “We want get everyone who is rebuilding to rebuild using Firewise principals.”