Renton couple recounts unimaginable loss, road to recovery following escape from 2020 wildfire

Oct 26, 2021, 9:40 AM | Updated: 2:09 pm
Renton couple, wildfire...
Jacob and Jamie Hyland, with their one-year-old son Uriel. (Courtesy photo)
(Courtesy photo)

A Renton couple who suffered unimaginable loss during an Eastern Washington wildfire in 2020 continues to recover, and is making plans to add to their family once again.

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It was on Sept. 8, 2020, that Jamie Hyland — who was pregnant at the time — her husband Jacob, and their 1-year-old son Uriel went camping in Okanogan County.

Jamie says they were eager to check out the family’s property there.

“We watched the shooting stars for while and cuddled our son and he nursed, and then he fell asleep between us, and then we both fell asleep,” she told KIRO Radio.

Not long after that, Jacob woke up to something menacing.

“He looks and sees the orange on the horizon line so he runs back and says, ‘Jamie, wake up, wake up! We need to go,'” she recounted.

The 190,000-acre Cold Springs fire that had sparked only two days earlier was on the run.

It had already covered the only path in and out of the couple’s campsite. The best chance to survive the flames, they thought, was to get to the Columbia River.

“So we grabbed the baby, jumped in the car, and went as far as we could through the sage brush, but then there was a rock that stopped us,” which Jamie says was fortunate, because there was a drop-off into a ravine just beyond the rock.

It was dark and too treacherous to drive down, so they ditched the truck and ran.

“I think I had the baby at first and my husband was carrying a five gallon bucket of water,” Jamie said. “But then I tripped, so he picked up the baby. My husband is so strong — he had the baby on one hip and a five gallon jug of water in the other one and he’s running — and I’m running, too — then the fire started to catch up to us.”

The flames were being fanned by 50-60 mile-an-hour winds.

The Hyland family could not outrun it.

A way out

Then, what some would describe as a miracle happened.

“My husband heard an audible voice that said, ‘hide in the cleft of the rock,’ and looked up and there was a large rock right there,” Jamie said. “There was no one out there.”

Wherever that voice came from, Jamie says Jacob listened and guided his family to the rock.

“He passes the baby down to me and I crouch next to this rock and then the fire is there,” she said.

It came, she says, with ridiculous speed.

It was so fast and so fierce that Jamie thought they were going to die, right there, clinging to each other and sheltered only by a rock. She chuckles slightly, remembering what she had said to herself.

“Oh, wow — I had more plans on Earth, but forget plans on Earth,” she said. “You know, it’s going to be the four of us in heaven, just now. Our toddler and the baby in the womb and me and my husband.”

She says she found a kind of peace in that.

“Peace and a joy in knowing that, OK, I’m done with Earth and I’m going to heaven now,” she said.

She didn’t open her eyes to heaven, but to see that the fire had burned right past them.

“Because the winds were going so fast and the fire was burning so hot, it had burned up all the fuel, and so it just kept going,” she described.

Jamie says her husband picked up a few branches and other pieces of debris that were still on fire, and tossed them aside so the family could continue to the river. She figures that’s why Jacob’s hands were more badly burned than her own, although they both sustained serious burns over much of their bodies.

“We scooped up our boy and we took turns carrying him and we made it to the river — it was such a relief to drink water,” Jamie said.

They traveled the remainder of the night after making it to the river, and as the sun rose, so did her hope.

“I looked to the sky like, OK, where’s the helicopter now? In the movies, the helicopter always shows up right about then,” she joked as she remembered. “But there was no helicopter, so we decided to walk and try to get to the dam.”

That meant navigating a perilous cliff face while on the brink of exhaustion.

“I mean, we were burned, we were cold, we were hungry,  we were drinking river water,” she said. “I was pregnant — you know, when you’re pregnant you get tired on the best of days, let alone then.”

A tragic loss

As they moved along the cliff face, she says they took turns carrying the bucket of water and, of course, Uriel, who clearly understood something was going on, said, “‘Dadda’ and pointed at his dad and he said ‘mommy’ and pointed at me and he kind of looked around, and he was like, ‘uh-oh!'”

She smiled as she remembered her son appeared to realize the family’s ordeal was not over yet.

“I’m with mommy, I’m with daddy, and we’re in the middle of — uh-oh!”

Uriel, safe in his parents arms, curled up and went to sleep.

“Sweet, merciful sleep,” Jamie said.

Relief that they’d made it as far as they had was soon overshadowed when her son opened his eyes, drifted off to sleep, and then opened his eyes again.

“And each time he looked up, his eyes seemed to look a little more glazed over, and so we started to realize, oh no, he’s fading,” Jamie said.

She says it pushed them to keep going.

“We were so exhausted, we would sit down to rest but force ourselves to get back up — we needed to get him to help,” she said.

Imagine the family’s anguish when they realized they had no choice but to stop.

“We came to a place where the terrain blocked us and we couldn’t get any further,” she continued. “We couldn’t climb over because our hands were so destroyed [by the fire]. We couldn’t get around unless we were able to swim around or something.”

So they settled onto the shore and held their son. By then, he was barely breathing.

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“We cuddled him close and we all just lay down, together. We whispered a blessing and a sendoff,” she said. “Heaven is a good place and we love you. … We said goodbye to our little boy and we all fell asleep, together, for a nap.”

She pauses, sighing heavily.

“And when we woke up, he was gone.”

Gone, Jamie says, in a somehow peaceful way.

“He was so trusting through that whole process,” she said. “He threw more of a fit if I left him with a babysitter than through this whole ordeal. He was just like, ‘I’m with my mom, I’m with my dad.’ There was nothing traumatic about the way he died. What’s traumatic is waking up every morning and not having him here with us and not getting to watch him grow up, and all of that.”

A bittersweet rescue

Jamie says it was about 48 hours later that they spotted hope coming down the Columbia River. Two men, who had worked a long shift for tribal fish and game found out through social media about the search for the young family.

“So even though they had just worked all night, they got back on their boats and came out looking for us,” she said.

Jacob was able to get onto the boat by himself, but Jamie says she needed to be carried, because in addition to loosing their son Uriel, “it was another 48 hours after our son passed before we were found, and during that time I had a miscarriage.”

She was 14 weeks pregnant.

“There’s like multiple layers of grief here,” she said.

“First, there’s missing our son and the relationship we had with him just knowing this little person. And then there’s the grief of this little person that we didn’t get to meet, and then there’s the grief of how it ended up in a hysterectomy,” she added, confirming that now, “I’m not able to birth children myself.”

But unwilling to let grief have the last word, the couple is already taking steps to have a biological child with the help of a surrogate.

“I’m looking forward to having a baby again,” Jamie said. “I can never replace my son, but I still have a lot of love. My husband still has a lot of love. We still want to be parents and to raise up the little brothers and sisters of our precious baby boy.”

That goal, faith, the support of family and friends, and sheer determination have helped Jamie and Jacob get through the physical wounds of burns, which have required seemingly endless surgeries. That’s in addition to the deeper scars that also persist.

“We don’t have the strength for the next six months — we have the strength for today,” Jamie said. “And there are moments you just need to bite the bullet and do the next thing, whether that’s going in for a surgery, or just breaking down and weeping, or whatever that happens to be.”

The journey now is not much easier than it was before.

“Often I still wish that we could go to heaven now, because the life here on Earth isn’t like what we had wanted — but life and death is in the hands of God,” she says with no uncertainty, “and we’re going to continue to move forward, until he takes us home.”

You can donate to an emergency fund for Jacob and Jamie on GoFundMe at this link

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Renton couple recounts unimaginable loss, road to recovery following escape from 2020 wildfire