The largest wildfire in Washington’s history nearly claimed the life of a former South Whidbey man last week.
Mark Desdier, a 1973 Langley High School graduate and son of Norm Desdier, a former owner of the Dog House Tavern, had to take refuge in a lake to escape overtaking flames near his cabin in Okanogan County near Omak. He was burned and injured in the incident.
Desdier was attempting to save his and his neighbors’ cabins at around 4 p.m. on Aug. 21 when a large gust of wind up to 50 miles per hour pushed a nearby wildfire down Cave Mountain. With few escape options, Desdier throttled his quad-bike for the nearest exit but flipped the vehicle on a berm due to the intense heat and debris which blinded him.
Fortunately, the bike landed on its wheels, and Desdier used the lake as a way to stay alive. Desdier later utilized a nearby dock to stay afloat and shield himself from the debris.
Desdier said he witnessed at least eight cabins disintegrate and explode — caused by propane tanks and other volatile equipment — but somehow, his and his wife Toni’s cabin was spared.
“Every direction you went, there was fire,” Desdier said. “All you could do was sit and watch it burning toward you and hope the wind doesn’t pick up. “I saw some amazing things that I’m sure nobody else has seen,” he added.
After exiting the area with the help of the Washington State Department of Natural Resources, Desdier would spend the next seven hours sheltered in an alfalfa hay farm building, owned by a family he had just met that night, until he was rescued by firefighters and taken to an Omak hospital.
Toni Desdier had believed her husband was dead throughout the course of the day and night from what she had been told by a witness. But, Toni didn’t let it discourage her.
“I never gave up that hope that he was alive,” Toni said. “I honestly believed, I thought he would make it. I tried not to even think that way.”
“When I hear his story, I cant believe he made it. Just amazing,” she added.
Desdier’s stepmother, a Useless Bay resident, Janet Desdier was astounded by the lengths Desdier went through to survive.
“It had to be help from angels or somebody,” Janet Desdier said. “He’s my hero because I hold him in a high esteem for all that he’s accomplished in his life before, but the fact that he’s such a survivor.”
The fires have claimed the lives of three U.S. Forest Service firefighters, injured four others, and destroyed 200 homes, according to news reports. The 400-square mile fire also sent a haze of smoke to Western Washington and the Puget Sound area this past weekend.
Desdier credited his ability to stay calm and focused in the dire situation in which he found himself to the fire academies he attended while working with the Washington State Ferries for 30 years. He was also appreciative of all the men and women who helped one another stave off the fires.
“I just really want to emphasize the people — how they all come together and help each other,” Desdier said. “Some of the people that helped me I met that day.”
The Desdiers now live in Anacortes.