A sign of hope in Washington
It can be awkward when people covering the news become part of the news. Yet an incident Tuesday night in Washington offered insights into that town’s internal struggles that would not have been achieved by mere objective observation.
Members of Washington’s volunteer fire department had threatened to walk out at Tuesday night’s meeting over the firing of their chief last week. The Union had written stories about the conflict via phone interviews, but firefighters had challenged the newspaper to come to Washington so they could “look into your eyes.”
Fair enough, we thought. So I offered to chauffeur reporter Roman Gokhman and photographer Pico van Houtryve to the meeting of the town’s water board, which oversees the fire department.
We were courteously welcomed to town and chatted with many of the key players before the meeting. The session itself, held on the fire station lawn, was a stalemate. Despite pleas for restraint by the board’s lawyer and officials from the county and other fire departments, most of the firefighters walked out as darkness fell and the meeting ended.
With our deadline approaching, the three of us from The Union hopped into my pickup and headed back to Grass Valley.
Rounding a corner two miles up the steep, winding Washington Road, we were shocked when our headlights framed a man staggering on the road, blood streaming down his face and soaking his white shirt. His car had crashed into a drainage ditch, and he apparently had gotten knocked in the head.
Pico and Roman helped the man into the shotgun seat of the truck. We told him people who could help him weren’t far away.
Knowing the man could be going into shock, Pico peppered him with questions to keep him talking. The man seemed confused – understandably – but said his name was Jack Mitchell, that he was about 80 years old, that he’d been visiting friends in the area, and that he’d just flat missed the curve at a spot the locals call White Bridge.
As we braked in front of the fire station, Roman and Pico raced back to the lawn area, looking for help. Within seconds, firefighters Lori Kolstad and Dina Svenson had their gear out and, with one in front of Mitchell and one in back, set to work checking his injuries and stabilizing his neck.
Soon other local firefighters were there to help, along with CDF chief Garrett McInnis.
Washington isn’t all that far east of Grass Valley and Nevada City as the crow flies, but it took the ambulance from Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital 45 minutes to arrive, which shows why residents of the isolated town – on both sides of this dispute – care so much about their fire department.
Mitchell stayed in my pickup, bandaged and on oxygen, until he could be moved to the ambulance. While waiting, we learned that Tony Clarabut, Nevada-Yuba-Placer Unit chief for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, had persuaded about half the Washington firefighters to put off their resignation for the time being, for the sake of the community.
As The Union’s contingent resumed its interrupted trip back to the newspaper, the three of us agreed that the response we had seen for Jack Mitchell – the compulsion to offer help to neighbors whenever help is needed – was a healthy sign that Washington will find a solution … for the community’s sake.
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