By Don Nelson
Even now, the fires, floods, slides and storms of 2014 dominate our conversations, our interactions, our community involvement, our personal and professional planning.
They shape our sense of expectation, drive our quest for preparedness, alter our concept of “normal.” They bookmark the past, suspend the present in held breaths, and demand reconsideration of the future.
Even now, a year after what came to be called the Carlton Complex Fire redefined our understanding — or more likely made it starkly clear — of what it means to live here, our nerve ends are as scorched as the shrub steppe. We understand that this is a choice, that when you snug up against nature, you’re all in or you pack it up. No equivocating allowed.
Even now, with the relatively uneventful passage of fall, winter (which could have used more events of the snowfall variety) and spring, we are not reassured that summer will fall sedately into step.
Even now, knowing everything we know, accepting that we must learn from it, dedicated to readiness, making progress every day, we probably aren’t as prepared as we should be.
Yet, how much more could we have done, compelled as we were to keep working, going to school, taking care of our homes and families, and generally looking after our lives? Living in the Methow requires our full-time attention even when it’s not ringed by fire. After all, it’s only been a year.
For many of us, it’s been a warp-speed 12 months. But for some — like Buddy Thomas, who saw the foundation for his new home laid just this week, and others who haven’t seen even that much happen — it’s been a slo-mo crawl. For them it must have seemed like — as the headline on our special section in this week’s paper suggests — the longest year.
Either way, there’s hardly been a moment’s respite from the fire’s aftermath. Looking back over the newspaper’s coverage of last July, August, September and beyond, I’m struck by how much time and energy we put into reporting and writing about all aspects of the fire and its consequences. It was exhausting, and all we were doing was documenting it while others did the literal heavy lifting. Even now, it’s rare that a week goes by without some fire-related article.
Or perhaps we should say, especially now. The articles in this week’s special section on the fire are meant as progress checks on how much community recovery has been accomplished in what is, after all, a blip in the historical continuum. The unity, strength and commitment of the Methow Valley to not only recover but also build a better community has been a sight to behold, and it’s still in the early stages.
So I think that our “even now” obsession is, on balance, a healthy one, and balance is the key. Acknowledging the trauma speeds the healing.
Outside of the valley, the Carlton Complex put us on the map in ways we didn’t bargain for. Big natural events create lasting impressions long after the headlines fade away. History is full of examples. We’re not going to get over Mount St. Helens in our lifetimes.
Like many similarly unfortunate western communities, the Methow is at risk of being defined, especially from a distance, by our biggest fire, and inevitably compared to those other places as if there were some glamorous distinction attached to the acres-and-buildings-burned rankings. No discussion of the Carlton Complex Fire proceeds without referring to it as the largest in state history (and there it is). But there can only be one of those, and if the Carlton Complex is eclipsed by some other catastrophic conflagration, we’ll be in less-distinguished second place — and still have everything to deal with.
Ultimately, though, how a community defines itself is the most important outcome after dealing with disaster, and by that measure the Methow can take deserved satisfaction — now and, we hope, from now on.