By Joanna Bastian
When I think back to Thursday, July 17, 2014, I distinctly remember the scorching heat. It felt hotter than the temperature displayed on the thermometer, and every gust of wind was as though someone had opened an oven door. The hot wind delivered chunks of blackened, smoking ash — drifting into the grass and trees all around our home.
What really stands out in my memory that day was an argument with my neighbor. Our thought processes were not the same. He wanted to stay and fight. I did not want to be trapped in an inferno. I was trying to offer help in preparing him and his wife to leave; he was trying to offer to save my house.
I am sorry to say that the conversation did not end well, with our tempers and voices raised, and angry words exchanged. It was the last conversation I ever had with him. I think about it all the time.
At 1 p.m. the fire jumped the line. With a furious wind of hot ash and burning embers it seemed Gold Creek was engulfed in seconds. There was no time to help anyone. There was only time to leave.
Forty-eight hours later we came back home to a different landscape, and a changed neighborhood. My neighbor had died of a heart attack while protecting his home.
There was no time for introspection. For days on end, we constantly chased spot fires. Tree stumps burned underground, the smoldering root systems igniting dry bushes above ground. Just as we paused for a breath, another smoke plume or flame would have us running up the hill with buckets of water from the creek. Anger was the only thing that kept me going. I don’t think I’ve handled a shovel so furiously in my entire life.
Two months later the ground began to heal. Green grass covered the blackened meadow, shoots sprouted from burned out flowerbeds. I found it difficult to be sad about the burnt landscape. This was a natural disaster — raw power that we could not control. I could be afraid, or I could be in awe. I chose the latter.
In the rare instance of downtime, I updated Facebook with banal minutia:
Two big events today. One, power was restored back to our irrigation and two, our roof blew off.
The day I can flip the switch on the coffee maker and have a fresh cup followed by a shower in my own house will be a day of jubilation. It’s the little things. I also miss refrigeration.
I’m still in my pajamas at work. Why?
Because I’m about to take a shower. Why?
Because I don’t have running water at home.
So why am I still in my pajamas and didn’t get dressed like a normal person? Because I have no clean clothes. Why?
Because the laundromat is overrun with clothes from 5,000 firefighters every day.
(Life with no power/running water going on week #4).
For the Methow Valley News, I covered the lower valley, collecting personal stories. As people talked, I took their photographs, hoping to capture a real portrait that had feeling, not a stiff pose. Hearing other people’s stories put all of our losses, including mine, into perspective. For some stories I was meant to just listen, not share. From my journal notes during that time, I found this entry:
I raised the camera as he spoke about the 10-foot flames that raced towards his house that day. I softly pressed the shutter button to capture the look on his face. As the camera clicked, we looked at each other. “My wife told me she had cancer that same day.” One horror eclipsed by another.
We can protect ourselves from fire with safety measures and homeowners insurance. But there are some natural disasters in life that have no escape routes. Like heart attacks and cancer.
One year later, and the meadow and hillside are covered with far more wildflowers than in previous years. Familiar trails are different, with a raw beauty. Fresh green bushes and wildflowers sprout in the midst of a black and white landscapes, trees and rocks forged into new art by last summer’s fire.
I remember our neighbor, with a new understanding of why he opted to stay while we all escaped. Just as I thoughtfully consider a landscape changed by nature, the Carlton Complex Fire also taught me to consider the complexities of being human.
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
— “Fire and Ice,” Robert Frost
This week, Valley Life columnists were asked to reflect on the events of 1 year ago — when the Carlton Complex Fire began — for a special series reflecting on the past year and looking forward. Click to see more articles from our Carlton Complex Fire 1-year anniversary section