The Times - Serving Waitsburg, Dayton and the Touchet Valley

By Beka Thompson
The Times 

Flooding, wildfires just another element of 2020

As though a new virus wasn't enough, the year threw some wild weather into the mix


December 31, 2020

Lane Gwinn

The 2020 flood as seen from Preston Ave

WAITSBURG-Keeping with the 'chaos' theme of the year, 2020 offered some extreme weather events.

On Tuesday, February 4, the National Weather Service reported 3.8" of snowfall in the area. On February 5, the snow was washed away by .69" of rainfall, setting a short-lived record. On Friday, February 6, the rainfall record was surpassed once again, with the area receiving .91" in less than 24 hours.

The frozen ground, paired with heavy precipitation and sudden, warm weather, created the perfect conditions for muddy water to break the riverbanks on Lower Hogeye Road, just outside the county line, and in various places above that.

The first banks broke in the very early hours of the morning, sending the river rushing down Lower Hogeye Road, across Highway 12, and, eventually, right down Preston Avenue. Water flooded into basements, garages, and through yards and pastures. While the flood in 2020 was a shorter event than the flood that happened exactly 24 years prior, it was an arguably more intense event, with a higher, faster initial flow rate.

In true small-town fashion, unaffected community members jumped up and took charge. The Waitsburg Christian Church's basement became a gathering spot for hungry flood victims and volunteers who were making efforts to divert the water. Other rooms in the church became sleep centers, so everyone had a safe, warm spot to lay their heads.

Community members like Margie Benson took charge in the kitchen, accepting food donations and piecing together comforting meals while maintaining a constant supply of fresh coffee and hot cocoa.

Neighbors, including Joy Smith and Jillian Henze, stepped up and began coordinating relief efforts, organizing volunteers, clothing and supply donations, and coordinating clean-up efforts. Hundreds of volunteers headed to the gravel pits and fairgrounds to fill sandbags, including a group of 4-H'ers. Friends from Dayton and Walla Walla showed up with trucks, trailers, and tractors used to haul sandbags and other diversion methods to vulnerable areas along the river, and to threatened homes.

By the end of the day, the water had receded, but clean-up is continuing nearly a year later. Slowed down by the COVID-19 pandemic, some essential repairs, like those occurring along the levees, were pushed back. Recently a large portion of the levee running along Willard Street was repaired by the U.S Army Corp of Engineers, after it sustained severe damaged. The City of Waitsburg is still waiting on federal disaster funding.

From water to fire, the elements were not kind in 2020. In August, heavy smoke blocked out the sun for almost a week. Wildfires across Washington, Oregon, and California were out of control and fueled a massive smoke cloud that hung low over our area, creating hazardous air conditions. On the bright side, everyone was already staying home to combat the COVID-19 virus.

Waitsburg escaped unscathed from the wildfires, but some of our neighbors were not so fortunate. The towns of Malden and Pine City were almost entirely destroyed by the fires. More than 710,000 acres were charred across the state, and more than 375 buildings were lost. The fires destroyed one hundred and eighty-one homes, claimed one Washington resident's life, and injured many more.

A small fire flared in the Pomeroy Ranger District of the Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness, being dubbed the Rattlesnake Fire. The fire was sparked by lightning in the 15-year-old scar of the 2005 School Fire and remained under 500 acres.

This year we had to adjust our way of life to protect, rebuild, and repair our community from the forces of Mother Nature. Waitsburg has risen to these challenges and now must keep working together through the pandemic as well. Well maintained levees protect from flooding, while masks and social distancing are still the best protection against the virus's spread.


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