By Don Nelson
A small fire that could have, should have been easily contained — and then the wind shifted, gusted and began sweeping away everything before it.
Explosively dry, tinderbox conditions that guarantee a spark will cause a fire.
Fierce, incredibly fast-moving flames that firefighters could not safely stand in front of, or ever recall seeing the likes of in long careers.
Staggering personal losses as dozens of homes are blasted into ashes almost instantaneously.
Shell-shocked evacuees, many of whom will never see their homes intact again, mourning their losses and counting their blessings.
Headlines, videos, interviews, graphics — a media maelstrom of terrifying images that may at times seem hysterical but, in retrospect after surveying the damage, may not have been that overhyped after all.
Communities rising up in unison and with overwhelming generosity to help those in need.
Sound like the summer of 2014 in the Methow Valley?
Well, yes — but all those descriptions come from media coverage of the horrific fires tearing through northern California right now — the fires of 2015 that are currently getting the most attention.
In the roar of those flames we hear the echoes of our own recent past. It is our misfortune to be able to say, “we know how you’re feeling” — and not have it sound like an empty platitude.
There is no comfort in these shared experiences, and only temporary solace in the fires’ eventual containment.
The Methow Valley’s heart-crushing Twisp River Fire, and others fire close by or raging across vast acreage in the eastern half of Okanogan County, feel more like part of a continuum than random separate events. Indeed, fire-plagued summers may be the new reality, according to Peter Morrison, executive director of the Pacific Biodiversity Institute in Winthrop. Morrison told News reporter Ann McCreary that “We need to start now fighting the fires of next summer and the summer after that. We need to do everything we can to get the human community fire-adapted” (Sept. 9 issue).
That can only start with humans accepting what Morrison calls “painful messages” about climate change and the demonstrable shift in fire-prone conditions throughout the West. As well, the “urban interface” of residences with forested areas is increasingly raising questions about whether firefighters should risk their lives protecting structures that maybe shouldn’t have been there in the first place — or should at least be safeguarded as much as possible against wildfires.
We’re past theorizing about this stuff. Unlike the biggest fires of the recent years, which may have consumed a lot of acreage but were less threatening to human habitation, the fires of 2014 and ’15 literally hit us where we live. None of has to go very far, or make much of an effort, to stand right on a spot that went up like a blowtorch — sometimes within a few feet of homes that were serendipitously spared, or heroically saved by firefighters.
I took a drive out Twisp River Road last weekend for the first time since the fatal fire that started Aug. 19. I knew how far the fire had spread, and how difficult it was to contain, but seeing the damage up-close is a mind-boggling exercise. The scorched landscape on the north side of the road seems to go on forever, burned down to the roadside in many places. It seems miraculous that the fire didn’t spread south of the road, and that so many buildings on the north side of the road escaped damage.
I drove up Elbow Coulee Road as well, feeling spooked by the silent, charred landscape and ghostly stands of blackened trees. On a ridgeline to the east, the trees are lined up like spindly sentinels, protecting nothing. A line of orange fire retardant marks a nearby hillside like a still-fresh scar.
For some, much more of what we’ve endured the last two years will, understandably, be too much to bear. But I suspect that most Methow Valley residents will accept our new reality and devote whatever resources, energy and commitment are necessary to adapt. We wish the same strength and foresight for our neighbors throughout the West.