Ashland volunteers fix 600 meals a day for firefighters who saved their town

The outskirts of Ashland still smell like smoke, but inside Ashland High School, the cafeteria smells like hotdogs and chicken, with the occasional whiff of decadent chocolate cake.

Since Tuesday night, staff at the high school has kept the kitchen going, cooking for ranchers, firefighters or anyone else who needs a meal.

About 200 people have been served at each meal, three meals per day.

Community members bring in sides — ranging from cheesy potatoes to pasta salad — and desserts by the dozen.

At lunch Saturday, firefighters came through in groups, from work or resting for the night shift. Ranchers walked through, some discussing the loss of their cattle.

“We appreciate you,” one woman called out to a firefighter.

All had plenty to eat, although the effort to feed so many wasn’t easy.

“I think that without each of us participating and coming together it would be more of a disaster than it already is,” said Allison McPhail.

The school’s kitchen isn’t where McPhail, the school board clerk, normally works. That hasn’t kept her from being there all week.

“All the firemen and responders have come in and thanked us, like we’re doing something big for them,” McPhail said. “I feel like we’re just trying to feed them and keep them comfortable while they’re here protecting our town.”

Since fires swept through Clark County, circling around Ashland but burning more than 60 percent of the county, the high school has become a hub for volunteers, housing and food. At least two volunteers have stayed in the building 24/7 since Tuesday.

“I think it’s been humbling, everybody that needs help or that comes in, (saying) ‘what can we do to help you?’ ” said Juanita Encinias, a cook at the school. “All we have to give is time, and that’s what we’re doing, giving our time.”

On Monday, the school evacuated an hour early. On Tuesday, Jamie Wetig, superintendent of Ashland Public Schools, and others returned to the school, asking emergency services how they could help.

Soon the school began receiving donations of food, water, shampoo and more. The school also became temporary housing for out-of-county firefighters, sleeping up to nearly 100 on its busiest night.

Wetig said the food service has been more than just three meals a day.

When firefighters come in at 3 a.m., someone is there to get them a warm meal, he said. Wetig knows because he’s been there, sometimes spending the night on a cot in the school.

Waiting for lunch, several firefighters joined Victoria Milburn, 13, for a game of cards. Victoria’s mother and grandmother were both at work in the kitchen, preparing meals.

After the game, Mike Worcester, a firefighter with the West Metro Fire Rescue out of Lakewood, Colo., said most of the fires he’s fought haven’t had the same community response.

And the firefighters working them haven’t usually eaten nearly as well.

“I’ve tested all the food and it’s exquisite,” Worcester said with a laugh. “I haven’t found a cookie, cake or pie that I didn’t like. … The fact we’ve been offered the school, we’ve been offered home-cooked meals, it’s unique. It’s extraordinary. The people of this community have come together for themselves and for us.”

But Victoria’s mother, Rebecca Boese, a paraeducator at the school, didn’t think she was doing anything extraordinary as she tracked down napkins, carried boxes of donated food and arranged side dishes.

Over the week she’s enjoyed meeting people from all over, she said — and enjoyed knowing that just a little bit of time is helping someone else.

“The least that we can do is give our time to make them a meal,” Boese said.

Katherine Burgess: 316-268-6400, @KathsBurgess

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