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Four are killed during weekend

Plateau residents were stunned by a pair of weekend incidents that left four people dead.

Sunday morning, word began circulating that Dan Packer, chief of East Pierce Fire and Rescue, died while fighting a large wildfire in California.

Sunday night, authorities reported a small, private airplane had crashed in Skagit County, south of Arlington. Late Monday morning, it was announced that the deceased included Enumclaw resident Brenda L. Houston, her 10-year-old daughter Elizabeth Crews and Dr. Virgil Becker, 54. Houston, 47, was the pilot. Becker, an Auburn resident, maintains a medical clinic in Auburn but works frequently at Enumclaw Regional Hospital, where he was president of the hospital's medical staff. His wife, Dr. Nancy Becker, has a medical practice in Enumclaw.

Initial reports indicate that the plane was slated to fly from San Juan Island to Auburn.

Word of a downed aircraft first came about 8:30 p.m. Sunday, but rescue efforts were hindered by darkness. Eventually, searchers from the Naval Air Station on Whidbey Island joined the effort and, using night-vision equipment, were able to locate the plane.

Due to the rugged terrain, the victims could not be removed until Monday morning.

Responding to an out-of-state emergency, the 49-year-old Packer was preparing to take over the division supervisor duties for the Panther Fire south of Happy Camp in Siskiyou County in northern California.

Assistant Chief Russ McCallion said Packer was “scouting the fire when the incident happened. The fire blew up and blew over him. It was incredibly rapid and Chief Packer was overrun.”

Packer was with another firefighter during the incident. Both deployed a shelter when the wind shifted and the fire overtook them. The other firefighter survived, but was injured.

The Panther Fire is part of the Siskiyou complex fire near Yreka, Calif. The wildfire has burned more than 50,000 acres.

East Pierce was informed of the chief's possible death at 10 p.m. Saturday.

McCallion said a Department of Natural Resources liaison contacted Deputy Chief John McDonald about the chief. Because of the intensity of the fire, the death could not be confirmed until crews could get to the site.

A service crew of four was able to get to the scene Sunday and recover the body, confirming the chief's death.

McCallion said East Pierce has dispatched two officers to “escort Chief Packer back to the jurisdiction.”

McDonald called an emergency meeting with all the East Pierce personnel at 8 a.m. Sunday.

McCallion said while the members met, the surrounding jurisdictions helped with any service calls.

“East Pierce is devastated and stunned,” McCallion said. “But we continue to perform our duties.”

Packer and McDonald are members of a Washington-based incident management team. The team can responds to disasters all over the nation including wildfires, hurricanes, earthquakes and searches.

The chief was considered one of the nation's experts on wildfires.

McCallion said Packer was a “visionary and he could communicate his vision. He could get out front and lead and everyone would follow.”

Packer, a Lake Tapps resident, grew up in Montana. Before becoming a fireman he was a bull rider on the rodeo circuit.

He began his career as a firefighter in 1981 in Burien.

Packer took on the duties of fire chief in Bonney Lake in 1995. Under his leadership and vision, the chief transformed the department of six firefighters into the East Pierce fire district with 100 firefighters and support staff and more than 40 volunteers. The district serves nearly 75,000 people and covers the areas of Bonney Lake, Sumner, Lake Tapps, the Ridge Communities, South Prairie and Wilkeson, about 142 square miles.

Packer is survived by his wife, four daughters, two grandchildren and his mother.

A memorial service is being planned. East Pierce will be posting information concerning the memorial on its Web site at www.eastpiercefire.org or check the Courier-Herald Web site for information.

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