Federal Way teachers who live in the Sumner and Bonney Lake areas went from preparing for the first day of school to preparing for wildfire evacuations.
Wildfires have ripped through Washington state this week due to hot, dry and windy weather. Cities of Sumner and Bonney Lake were overtaken by the Sumner Grade Fire, which East Pierce Fire and Rescue officials say burned more than 800 acres and is 20% contained as of Sept. 9.
Shonda Moon, a teacher at Thomas Jefferson High School, and her husband Jeff Moon, a teacher at FWPS Internet Academy, had little notice before they were directed to evacuate their Bonney Lake home on Tuesday night.
Spending the Labor Day Weekend as many other Federal Way educators did by planning for the first week of online schooling, the Moons and their 8-year-old daughter lost power late Monday night due to the fierce winds.
Most, if not all, of the city of Bonney Lake also lost power, meaning cell phone signals were spotty, all traffic lights were out and grocery stores were running on backup generators.
“We were aware of the fires,” Jeff Moon said. While the neighborhood didn’t seem to be in a direct line of danger, the plume of smoke on the horizon kept growing bigger, he said.
There was limited communication about the state of the close fires going into Tuesday.
“Everything was OK, but I think it was OK because we didn’t have communication. We didn’t know what was going on,” Shonda Moon said.
The Moon family barbecued dinner with a family whom they also quarantine with during the pandemic on Tuesday evening, then set out on their usual family walk around 6 p.m.
As they got to the end of their neighborhood and into better cell phone service, the texts about the expansion of the evacuation zone came flooding in. They watched as tons of cars streamed out of the neighborhood.
At 7 p.m., the family realized they were in an immediate evacuation zone and rushed to leave, having only 15-20 minutes to pack up their necessities, Shonda Moon said.
“It was like a chaotic mad dash of whatever bags you could grab. We were shoving whatever we could into it,” she said. “It was very scary and very intense.”
Two of the three main roads to get off of the plateau were closed, turning what would be a 20-minute drive into an hour and a half, Jeff Moon said.
On the road, Shonda Moon called a close friend and colleague who secured a hotel room for the Moons where they stayed for the night.
Wednesday morning, the first day of school for FWPS due to the previous day’s cancellation, Shonda Moon taught from a classroom at TJHS while Jeff Moon participated in trainings from their hotel room.
“Even though we had all of the craziness with trying to arrange everything in our lives and having no idea what’s going on in the outside world, today’s a school day and we made it work,” Jeff Moon said.
The two knew they had to keep composure for their daughter, whose start date in the Sumner-Bonney Lake School District is still undermined. However, the familiarity of a school routine brought a sense of much-needed distraction.
“Once I started talking to the kids, it felt so nice,” said Shonda Moon, who has been teaching in the Federal Way district for 18 years. “It was nice to think about them and think about something else for a while and just focus on my teaching, and not have to think about the chaos of our life right now.”
As of Sept. 9, their neighborhood is safe, power is slowly returning to pockets of the city and conditions are changing. But the Moon family is faced with several decisions for their circumstances. Do they return to their home and hope the internet returns for the rest of the week in order for them to teach? Will they need to commute to Federal Way in order to work? Or do they continue their stay at the Federal Way hotel where internet is guaranteed? What about their daughter’s school schedule?
Choices are guided by news updates and taken on a day-by-day pace, Shonda Moon said.
The couple expressed their gratitude for the care of their colleagues, who offered them a place to stay and have dropped off care packages to their hotel. The two are still stunned at the events of this first week of the new school year, which already is strange in and of itself.
“If there was going to be a fire coming toward us, I would always assume it would come toward us from the wild areas in the direction of Mount Rainier,” Jeff Moon said. “But instead this one basically came at us from the middle of town.”
These last two days have felt like more than 48 hours, said Leslie Hargraves, a 6th- and 7th-grade teacher at Totem Middle School in Federal Way.
Around 11 p.m. Monday, she and her husband lost power at their home in unincorporated Pierce County near Sumner.
“We heard lots of sirens, which made it difficult to sleep, and the wind,” she said. “We were trying to get information online with our dying cell phones. Then we started to learn there had been several fires in the area.”
Her husband went to check on their boat at a nearby lake and passed a power line on the way that had been hit by a tree and caught fire.
“We could hear transformers blowing right and left,” Hargraves said, adding that luckily they had a backup generator, but no internet access.
Neighbors down the street from the Hargraves’s called around 6 a.m. Tuesday to say they were planning to leave as the evacuation line was at the edge of the road, essentially across the street from their house.
FWPS canceled the first day of school Sept. 8 due to widespread power outages from the wind. Hargraves said this turned out to be a relief for her.
“We had to make the decision whether we were going to leave out of an abundance of caution or stay,” she said. “And we stayed … we were fairly comfortable, but we also know the nature of wildfires — they can change.”
Hargraves’s brother is a wildland firefighter who has passed on some knowledge about preparing for danger, so Hargraves and her husband began to protect their woodsy 7.5-acre property. Her husband cut all of the low vegetation down to create a fire line. They soaked everything as best they could and began packing their essentials into their motorhome.
Hargraves has a few others in her care, including two dogs and two cats, one of which is severely disabled, and 15 farm ducks.
The back of their pickup truck is ready to be used as a makeshift bird coop. The cat carriers are ready to go and the dogs have their ID tags on just in case, she said.
As fires continued to spread, the first day of school loomed closer.
“It was kind of scary because I had no power, I had no internet, and all my pets were here.”
Hargraves put in an absence for the Wednesday school day just in case as the fires moved up the hillside toward Bonney Lake and jumped to the other side of 410.
Then, phone calls began to stream in about friends who had been evacuated.
“We went from not knowing the fires were there, to much of those neighborhoods on the west of Bonney Lake being told to get out now with no time to plan,” she said, adding that she took in one of her best friends nearby who needed a place to stay.
After staying up late following the wildfire updates on the news, Hargraves awoke to a text about the shift in evacuation immediacy and “now everybody across the street from us has to evacuate right now.”
Smoke from the fires made Hargraves, her husband and her friend cough and feel nauseous. It was a glimmer of hope, she said, when the power and internet unexpectedly came back on.
“Then I got up and was like ‘I get to teach this morning,’” she said, adding that she had been weighing options of driving into Federal Way or a local coffee shop for WiFi. “I was excited.”
Now, as the school days get rolling, Hargraves’s family still has everything packed up and ready to go at a moment’s notice.
“[Teaching] needs to be a priority, but it’s not the at top of the list when you’re trying to figure out if you have everything to live and save your family and save your animals,” she said.