Go Now: Nakia Creek wildfire’s sudden expansion prompted widespread evacuations north of Camas-Washougal

Local residents who fled their homes, farms express gratitude for community's outpouring of support

An American Red Cross Disaster Relief van sits outside a Nakia Creek Fire evacuee shelter at the Camas Church of the Nazarene on Monday, Oct.. 17, 2022. (Contributed photo courtesy of Taylor Balkom/The Columbian)

Volunteers with the American Red Cross Cascades Region, including Ralph Harris (second from left) and Shirley Toth (left), work to help Nakia Creek Fire evacuees at the Camas Church of the Nazarene on Monday, Oct. 17, 2022. (Kelly Moyer/Post-Record)

Lorrie and Shaun Conway, owners of the Conway Family Farm, unload their goats at a Camas-Washougal area property outside the Nakia Creek Fire evacuation zone on Sunday, Oct. 16, 2022. (Contributed photo courtesy of Lorrie and Shaun Conway)

The Nakia Creek Fire is seen from the Conway Family Farm in Camas on Sunday, Oct. 9, 2022. (Contributed photo courtesy of Laurie and Shaun Conway)

Wildfire smoke from the Nakia Creek Fire is visible from the Conway Family Farm in Camas on Sunday, Oct. 16, 2022. (Contributed photo courtesy of Lorrie and Shaun Conway)

An American Red Cross disaster relief sign shows the way toward the Red Cross' Nakia Creek Fire evacuation shelter at the Camas Church of the Nazarene in Camas on Monday, Oct. 17, 2022. (Kelly Moyer/Post-Record)

Camas-Washougal residents caught off guard on Sunday, Oct. 16, by the rapid expansion of the Nakia Creek Fire and their sudden inclusion in the fire’s Level 3 “go now” evacuation zone said this week that they are “humbled and grateful” for the friends, neighbors and volunteers who helped them find comfort during such a stressful time.

“It’s really important that people know what an amazing community we have in an emergency,” said Lorrie Conway. “We have such a great network of friends. … And I’m so humbled by the outpouring of people and support.”

Lorrie and her husband, Shaun Conway, have owned and operated Conway Family Farm, a boutique goat dairy and creamery, in Camas’ Livingston Mountain neighborhood, for the past 35 years, and have only had one brush with a nearby wildfire.

“We had a close call about 12 years ago, but didn’t mobilize or evacuate,” Lorrie said. “But we did start planning.”

The couple already had a heightened awareness that their property, located in a heavily wooded area, was more at risk from wildfires, and they’d witnessed drier weather conditions over the past few years, so the Conways had a good evacuation plan in place and were ready to move themselves, their pets and the 50 goats and sheep that call Conway Family Farm home.

On Sunday morning, however, one week after the Nakia Creek Fire started burning near Larch Mountain, just a few miles from the Conways farm, an immediate evacuation still didn’t seem likely, Lorrie said. In fact, the Conways farm wasn’t even in the Level 1 “Be Ready” zone until Sunday morning.

“We had anticipated that because of the wind,” Lorrie said, “but then, 20 minutes later, I went inside and all the phones were going off and it said, ‘go now.'”

The couple started calling friends who had offered the use of their livestock trailers in the event of an evacuation and were able to evacuate their 50 goats and sheep to pastures outside the evacuation zones on Sunday afternoon.

“Since then, we’ve just been glued to (fire updates) and trying to keep our family updated on where we’re at and just spending time with the animals so they have some familiarity,” Lorrie said.

Though the thought of losing the farm they built from scratch more than three decades ago haunts the Conways, Lorrie said she is heartened by the community’s outpouring of support and “knows the firefighters are doing the best they can” to save properties in wildfire’s path.

“I’m just humbled by the goodness in our lives,” Lorrie said. “We’ve got a great community.”

Camas Parks and Recreation Department Director Trang Lam was actually visiting the Conways’ farm with her husband, Cary Allen, on Sunday morning, when the alert came in that the Nakia Creek Fire evacuation zones had expanded.

Though Lam and Allen lived in the Bear Prairie area, a few miles east of the Nakia Creek Fire, their neighborhood wasn’t included in the evacuation zones until Sunday afternoon.

“We didn’t think they were going to evacuate our end,” Lam said Monday morning. “We couldn’t see flames from our home and, because the winds were heading west, we didn’t get any smoke, either.”

In fact, the first clue Lam had that her home might be in harm’s way was when the Conways told her their farm had just jumped from a “be ready” to a “go now” evacuation alert.

On their drive home from the goat farm, Lam said she and her husband could see smoke from the wildfire. Once home, the parks director and her husband began preparing for an evacuation. They put flammable materials in the middle of their field, soaked the lawn and packed the essentials: their 15-year-old cat, Paw Paw, and her food and supplies; their computers; pictures from world travels they couldn’t replace; and some warmer clothing in case their evacuation lasted longer than expected.

Then, Lam and her husband went to stay with relatives.

“We were lucky to have family in Vancouver,” Lam said. “And I’m taking this seriously, especially as an employee of the city. I’ve been getting in touch with my employees and there are a couple in the ‘go now’ evacuation zone.”

For anyone who finds themselves in the Level 1 or Level 2 “be ready” or “be set” zones, Lam said she would advise preparing now in case the fire shifts again.

“Start packing and be ready,” Lam said. “We were generally ready. We knew what we needed to do. Because, when the time comes, you just have to go.”

Washougal School Board member shocked by sudden evacuation notice

Washougal School Board official Angela Hancock was enjoying a relaxing day at her home on top of Bear Prairie on Sunday, Oct. 16, when she received a phone alert that stated that she should prepare to evacuate her residence. She looked up at the sky, saw a bit of smoke but nothing that looked imminently threatening, so Hancock didn’t think too much of it.

Five minutes later, she received another alert that stated that she should leave immediately. She couldn’t believe her eyes.

“I was kind of shocked,” Hancock said. “I was really confused at that point. My first thought was, ‘What the heck? Is this real? Did somebody mess up?’ I had to reread my message a couple of times, and then immediately I started looking for a backup (source of information) to just make sure that the message was correct.”

Hancock, along with her husband and two daughters, packed personal items and their pets, and drove their three vehicles and trailer to Mount Norway, where they stayed the night on a family friend’s property.

“The family just went into ‘go’ mode,” Hancock said. “First, we started figuring out (things like) what we were going to do with our animals. We (told the kids) to get their most important things, get their medicine, get a few pieces of clothing, and throw them in the trailer. We just started throwing a plan together. It was a little hectic, but we worked together to get out.”

Hancock went to work at the City of Camas on Monday, Oct. 17, and anxiously awaited further updates for most of the morning. When she received word that the evacuation notice in her area had been lifted, she started making plans with her family members to return to their house that evening.

“The cancellation of the Level 3 (order) was definitely a weight off our shoulders, a ‘Thank goodness we’re going to be back at our house’ (moment),” she said. “It was a relief. The entire past 24 hours felt like a dream. I think panic set in mainly because there was a lack of information and communication, so when I realized that, I was able to come back down and go, ‘We’re going to be OK.’ I didn’t have time to be scared or get upset, and I got through it.”

The whole ordeal taught Hancock a few lessons about herself, however.

“Driving back home, I was thinking, ‘What did we take? What would we be left with if we were to lose our house?’ And actually, (I realized that) the material things, there’s just not much that means much. We had each other, we had our animals, we had our important paperwork, and other than that, I really didn’t care.

“I thought I was a pretty prepared person,” she continued, “and until this happened, I didn’t realize how I wasn’t as prepared as I thought I was. And I don’t think (a lot of my neighbors) were as prepared as they thought they were. All of them were (told to evacuate), and most of them left, but there were a few that hung out and waited to see what was going to happen. It was really hard to watch. I think things actually set into my mind that this was real when I saw people heading out with horse trailers and people with empty trailers coming back up the hill and helping friends get out and stuff like that. Watching that just made me sad.”

Red Cross opens shelter at Camas Church of the Nazarene

Some Camas-Washougal residents weren’t as lucky to have friends or family to stay with when they suddenly found themselves in the “go now” evacuation zone Sunday afternoon. At least 29 of those residents arrived at the Camas Church of the Nazarene on Sunday evening, where the Cascades Region chapter of the American Red Cross had established an emergency evacuation shelter that could accommodate around 100 residents and their pets.

Dwight Daley, 76, arrived at the Camas shelter with his two small pups, 7-year-old Jaxie and 8-year-old Sammy, on Sunday evening.

Daley has lived on a 5-acre property north of Camas-Washougal for 16 years. When a neighbor came to tell him they were in the “go now” evacuation zone on Sunday evening, Daley first made sure his neighbors’ dogs had been evacuated and then grabbed his own beloved pets and left his home with little else.

A native of California’s Napa Valley, Daley said he is no stranger to wildfires and knew his property might be in danger if the Nakia Creek Fire expanded.

“I’m surrounded by giant, 120-foot fir trees,” Daley said. “I’ve seen the needles change on the trees – getting drier – and so I knew they were dry as twigs.”

Once he arrived at the Red Cross’ Camas shelter, Daley said he was amazed by the care and support he received from the volunteers.

“They took care of everything,” he said Monday. “They brought dog food and someone just brought a dog crate for (Jaxie and Sammy). They have a fantastic staff here. And I’ve been telling everyone, ‘If you want to help, donate to the Red Cross.'”

Rev. James Austin, of the Camas Church of the Nazarene, said Monday he was happy his church could help those in need and was also grateful to see how many community members pitched in to help their neighbors.

“I want to say a huge ‘thank you’ to this community for the huge outpouring of support,” Austin said. “The Camas community has been so gracious and giving.”

Reporter Doug Flanagan contributed to this story.