I doubt there are many souls in the Methow who haven’t already had a thought or two — privately kept or quietly shared — about the significance of Aug. 19 in the valley’s collective consciousness. It was just a year ago this Friday that three firefighters died in the Twisp River Fire, including Methow Valley native Tom Zbyszewski. Several others were injured that day including Daniel Lyon, who is recovering from severe burns.
I say “just a year” because the time seems to have passed quickly. The calendar relentlessly recycles noteworthy dates that rush toward us like appointments that must not be missed. But nobody who was in the valley that day, or heard the news anywhere in the world, or shared in the community’s stunned grief needs a blaring reminder.
It was a day, and a fire, and an outcome that, despite our understanding of where we live and what can happen, caught us off guard and knocked us to our knees. This week it feels like we are still catching our breath. After the exhausting devastation of the Carlton Complex Fire in 2014, we had cautiously made our way, day by day, through a fingers-crossed summer of 2015. A sudden shift of wind on an otherwise uneventful afternoon changed everything, and “if only” alternative scenarios provide no solace.
We still hardly know how to talk about the fires and the deaths except in subdued conversations whose persistent, unstated subtexts are shock, sorrow and feelings of helplessness about how to be helpful.
But the day is upon us, and we can neither ignore nor celebrate Aug. 19. So what’s an appropriate response? The date cannot pass without acknowledgement. That’s something we think about as a newspaper staff. It’s our responsibility to revisit the events of a year ago, but we don’t feel compelled to retell them in detail. What’s too little? What’s too much? All we can do is try to strike a balance between remembrance and respect.
A couple of weekends ago I drove out to the Thirtymile Fire memorial for the four firefighters who died in that 2001 blaze. A few days after I took over as owner of the Methow Valley News in 2011, the valley hosted a 10-year commemorative event to reflect on the fire and its victims. Now we’re 15 years out, another half-decade of history behind us, but the memorial at the fire site is just as moving and thought-provoking now as ever.
Before last summer, the high-profile Thirtymile Fire was the Methow Valley firefighting tragedy that evoked the most profound appreciation for what this community must sometimes endure. The Twisp River Fire exponentially compounds that emotional experience and will likewise remain vivid in our minds and hearts for years to come.
We have now been through the first of those years, and it’s a little hard to know what to do. Methow Valley District Ranger Mike Liu has suggested a simple but powerful response. At 3:02 p.m. on Friday, U.S. Forest Service personnel will observe a moment of silence over their radio frequencies in honor of their fallen colleagues. That’s something the entire community can share and appreciate.
Liu also encourages community members to visit the Fallen Firefighter Memorial at Mack Lloyd Park in Winthrop, and the reflection site at Forest Service’s Winthrop office.
In a note to the newspaper, Liu said that “My hope is we can all bring some closure to the events of the last two years and honor the memory of the fallen by living life to the fullest and helping each other in times of need. Something this community is very good at.”