Teacher Michael Walsh was in California last month, helpless as the Beaver Creek Fire shifted course and thousands of Blaine County residents were ordered to get ready to evacuate.
Walsh, who teaches residential construction at Wood River High School, has taught in Blaine County for 23 years. Fifteen years ago, he and his wife built their house at the end of a quiet street, surrounded by a spread of Bureau of Land Management acreage.
But as the fire approached, everything – photos, wedding rings and heirlooms – was trapped inside.
Even a family vehicle and the llamas Walsh raises were unreachable.
“It would be a great personal loss,” Walsh said.
As the fire burned toward his home, retired Blaine teacher Irene Healy and her husband, Mike, acted quickly.
They offered to drop by Walsh’s place and grab what essentials they could carry.
Before long, Wood River math teacher Glenn Lindsley heard the news and began helping the Healys.
Then science teacher Larry Barnes showed up.
Teachers Jaymie and Max Stimac – along with their two daughters, who attend school in the district – joined the cause.
Science teacher Christopher Cey dropped what he was doing and went to Walsh’s house.
Together, a coalition of teachers and students hauled carloads of Walsh’s life to safety.
The wedding rings and passports.
All the photos and art from the walls.
A trailer and drift boat.
Carpets and bags of clothes.
And, yes, the llamas.
Everything was hauled to safety.
“They decided they had the manpower and weren’t going to take any chances,” Walsh said. “We were just blown away. We’re in California when all this is going on and now everything is going to be safe.
“I still have a little trouble talking about it without getting choked up.”
While still in California, Walsh caught news reports of hotshot firefighting crews posting up in his backyard, bulldozing fire lines and back-burning.
“Right behind the house, as far as you can see, it was black,” Walsh said. “It all burned right up to our landscaping, and it was a fierce battle.”
Although it was close, firefighters saved Walsh’s home, even going so far as to water his garden and clean up the area before they left town, he said.
The Beaver Creek Fire was started by lightning on Aug. 7, and grew to 111,490 acres before it was contained on Saturday, incident commander Scott Johnson said in a news release. Walsh and thousands of other people were evacuated in August.
“I will never forget it,” Walsh said. “We just didn’t expect it. We didn’t plan on it. We just had no idea our friends and colleagues cared enough to take the time and do all that work.”
Walsh said he was hardly the only person who benefitted as the community came together. He knows of teachers who helped shelter other evacuated teachers. In one case, a teacher offered shelter for six people who had to suddenly evacuate.
That came as no surprise to Blaine County School District director of communications Heather Crocker.
“Our biggest concern was taking care of each other and our extended family in the school district,” Crocker said. “We definitely all knew people in the area who had to be evacuated or were on pre-evacuation notice.”
Walsh was able to move safely back into his home before Tuesday, when the new school year began in Blaine County.
But before students showed up, Walsh hosted a party and thanked all of the teachers and families who helped rescue his possessions.
“They even took our wine collection to safety, so we had to break out some nice bottles of wine,” Walsh said.