Solveig Torvik

So here we are, disoriented, astounded and bereaved.

You’d think that having hundreds of homes incinerated in the Carlton Complex’s 250,000-acre firestorm would be quite enough heartbreak.

But no. Following hard upon that came a man-made blaze that burned additional homes in the Rising Eagle Road conflagration. Terrific winds followed, triggering more power outages, closing roads and felling trees that crashed through roofs. Blessed rains perversely brought flooding and mudflows that closed highways and wrecked more homes. Even the firefighters’ encampment was flooded.

Life in our Magic Methow isn’t supposed to be like this. Aren’t we specially ordained to remain safe from natural catastrophes that strike in other, less fortunate places? Or were we misinformed? Hello?

People, we’ve been shown that we’ve got to smarten up. We must prepare to cope better when Mother Nature goes on a holy tear.

Being without electricity for eight days and without Internet and cell phone service much of that time immeasurably heightened the danger and difficulties. So a generator at the Twisp substation that would power Twisp and Winthrop when the Loup Loup power line fails rightly is at the top of Twisp Mayor Soo Ing-Moody’s request list for public safety improvements.

If this is the new normal, we also need airborne and other resources at the ready to jump on fires fast, as was the case with the impressive Rising Eagle Road Fire air attack directed by Twisp’s legendary Bill Moody and Tom Dorigan of Oregon. The heroes with boots at the fire lines always do the heavy lifting, but they were wildly overmatched this time.

Eyewitnesses say at least one of the fires that melded into the massive Carlton Complex started on lands managed by the state’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) at Cougar Flat, although agency spokeswoman Sandra Kaiser said DNR is still investigating the fire’s origin. DNR manages 54,700 acres of trust lands in the Methow Valley, and 20 percent of what burned was DNR land, she said.

According to Okanogan County Fire District 6 Chief Don Waller, his volunteers responded to reports of smoke on July 14 and began clearing brush for structure protection. On July 15, DNR firefighters arrived, and Waller said he requested state mobilization that afternoon.

Unsubstantiated accounts claim that some homeowners who requested help from DNR firefighters to protect houses were refused DNR assistance. Asked what DNR firefighter’s orders are, Kaiser said:

“The local fire jurisdiction is responsible for structure protection, which includes homes. DNR’s responsibility is to fight wildland fires. DNR’s firefighters are not trained or equipped to suppress structure fires. Because of this, personnel would not engage in structure fire suppression. However, DNR does try to keep wildfire from threatening structures.”

Kaiser also said DNR adheres to the “minimum standards” for firefighter training prescribed by the National Wildland Fire Coordinating Group.

A P.R. calamity

By July 17 a multi-agency Incident Management Team (IMT) had arrived, and citizens were invited to what was billed as an information meeting at the Community Center in Twisp at 7 p.m. It was a public relations calamity, but subsequent teams did better.

Much of the first IMT meeting was devoted to inter-agency backslapping. A clearly shaken Waller said he’d never seen such monstrous fire behavior in 40 years on the job. Aside from that, little information was forthcoming.

Worse yet, no questions were allowed from the floor, even from the shell-shocked people who had just raced away from their burning homes. Instead, attendees were directed to wait until after the bureaucratic self-promotion ceased and then consult indecipherable fire maps pinned along the walls in a room darkened by loss of electricity.

The highlight of the evening was the incident commander’s detailed recitation of his own firefighting experience and responsibilities, which ended with the pathetic admission that by the time he asked for help fighting the Carlton Complex firestorm, there wasn’t any help to be had.

Even Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark dropped by to deliver a tone-deaf political speech to people anxious to hear anything but that. His message was that he felt our pain but unfortunately did not have needed resources.

That’s not entirely his fault; speak to your state legislators. And do credit U.S. Republican Rep. Paul Ryan, chair of the House Budget Committee, for killing the bi-partisan, widely-supported Wildfire Disaster Funding Act just as Congress adjourned this fire season. Federal wildland firefighting funding has proved blindingly inadequate.

Although Waller confirmed that all who spoke at the meeting knew it, neither Goldmark nor anyone else mentioned that 40 minutes earlier the fire had raced through Pateros. Everyone was focused on what was happening in this area, Waller said by way of explanation of that incomprehensible omission.

The same day, Ing-Moody and Winthrop Mayor Sue Langdalen were turned away from an IMT planning meeting. Rather than shutting out elected officials, the first stop of any IMT should to be at town hall, Ing-Moody argued. Sharing information and communicating with town officials is critical for public safety, she stressed. “A ball got dropped somehow,” she added. “I don’t know who was holding the ball.”

The balls that weren’t dropped during this historic tribulation were held by those who always show up to help when there’s trouble around here.

That’s the real Methow Magic.

 

Solveig Torvik lives in Winthrop.