Buddy Thomas is the affable, always helpful guy with the white beard at Hank’s Harvest Foods in Twisp. Last week his letter to the editor thanked some people who have helped him as he rebuilds the home he lost to the Carlton Complex Fire. This Monday noon, I went up to see how he was doing.
Dry yellow grasses grow high beneath charred skeletons of bitterbrush shrubs in Finley Canyon. Dark storm clouds hang ominously above as my car climbs the steep road. I hadn’t been up there since the fire, and I couldn’t stop thinking, “How did Susan [Speir] get out? How did any of the families on these hills escape the fire?”
Buddy has a “world class view” from his front door, a panorama of the valley that, he says, will make him stay there as long as he is able. He has already survived fire and flood when water washed out his driveway after the fire burned his house last summer.
Totally ignorant of local geography, I tried to find Goat Peak in the far distance as Buddy pointed out landmarks and then the path that marked the fire’s approach over three days last July. On Wednesday evening, July 16, 2014, Buddy says he saw smoke on the west flank of Blue Buck Mountain. He went to bed, thinking the fire was heading west. By the next morning Buddy could see that the fire wasn’t moving away, but coming down the valley. Smoke columns were rising near Pipestone Canyon and towards the Beaver Creek drainage.
Despite the fire, Buddy went to his job at Hank’s on July 17 — “better to have something to do than just hang around here,” he said — and he stayed there until word spread around the store that the fire had jumped Highway 20. He and a friend raced up the canyon to clear out as many of Buddy’s belongings as they could. On July 18, he returned to smoldering ash and a burned-out building.
A fierce breeze was blowing this noon during my visit. It wasn’t hard to imagine the fire sweeping up the canyon, past Buddy’s house and on its devastating path to Pateros.
Buddy and his wife purchased 20 acres on Finley Canyon in 2002 when they both still lived on the west side. The building that was destroyed in last summer’s fires was a garage/shop. Further up the slope, above and behind the first building, they would build their house. But Buddy lost his wife, Natalie, to cancer before they carry out that plan.
As the structure was essentially an outbuilding, Buddy hadn’t insured it when the fire struck. But the three sides of structure, its floor slab and most of its roof were concrete and these survived the burn.
Bermed tightly into the hillside, Buddy’s old garage/shop will be a house as solid as a bunker with its concrete ceiling, walls and floor. The exterior siding is also cement composite. Framed into the front is a wall of windows with a view to the west. A window opens on the right side, and skylights will add more light to the back of the interior, which Buddy will finish himself.
Buddy is paying for the bulk of the building materials, but he is very grateful for the donated labor by volunteers. He “can’t say enough about” Hayley Riach, lead case manager at Room One for the Carlton Complex Disaster Case Management Program. She has sent teams of volunteers his way. Buddy has welcomed help from Tonasket Lions Club, North Creek Church in Everett, Washington, and a group of young Mennonites from other states.
Shortly after the fire, he was back at work at Hank’s. He was living with friends at the time. Buddy still gets emotional when he tells how he was called out to the parking lot and presented with keys to what would be his temporary home, an RV, fully furnished and stocked. Buddy plans to gift the RV to someone else in need as soon as his house is finished.
A small but enthusiastic audience that wasn’t in the least shy about laughing loud attended Sunday’s matinee performance of The Importance of Being Earnest at The Merc Playhouse in Twisp. You really must see this Oscar Wilde classic this week or next. Chris Behrens is not only great in one of the leading roles, but he writes a superior fake resume. Costumes, borrowed from Seattle theater companies, are really fine.