Three years ago this week, we crowded into the Methow Valley Community Center gym on a scorched, smoky evening. There was no power. The gym was stifling, gloomy and thick with anxiety that felt as dense as the towering white plumes that billowed out of the hills all around us.
We were literally surrounded by what would soon become the largest wildfire in state history — frightened, confused, cut off from normal communications and uncertain that anything we heard that night would reassure us at all. With no electricity, we were all essentially living off the grid. Some of us were already homeless. Others soon would be. Feelings of anger, sorrow, disbelief, frustration and helplessness welled up and darkened the atmosphere in the old school gym as weak light filtered through the high windows.
We came for solace, for practical information, for someplace to be that felt like community. That night, first responders, government agency representatives, local officials and community leaders trooped to the front of the gym to tell us what they knew about the newly designated Carlton Complex Fire. They tried to speak loudly, because there was no amplification. We strained to catch their words and, more subtly, their meaning. We were stunned by what we heard, and apprehensive that the next thing we heard might be worse.
We knew, soon enough, that the rage of flame sweeping through the shrub steppe was essentially unstoppable, despite the best efforts of hundreds of firefighters who dared not stand directly in its ravenous path. Meanwhile, everyday matters demanded our attention — we needed generators, water, cell phones that worked, health care, places to put people and animals — and things to do that made us feel useful. We were reminded that simple amenities we take for granted can become momentarily precious — a hot shower, a cup of coffee, a full tank of gas.
Later that summer came the Rising Eagle Road Fire, another catastrophic — if more concentrated — burst of destruction. A year later, the unimaginable tragedy of the Twisp River Fire dwarfed even our accumulated grief.
As things literally cooled down during the fall and winter of 2014, the rebuilding, recovery and rethinking about how we live here were all gaining powerful momentum that continues to this day. We are a different community now — better informed, better prepared, better braced against what to expect from natural disasters. Much of that is attributable to a community-wide effort to take matters into our own hands as much as possible, and to our reliance on the bedrock community connectivity that has characterized this place since the first settlers decided they were never going to leave.
In the agonizing days of summer 2014, we questioned some firefighting responses, lamented fractured communications that seemed to create more chaos than order, railed at inadequately responsive agencies in the aftermath and — out of frustration and determination — bootstrapped our own systems of support for those whose needs were greater than our own.
The summer of 2016 passed without major incident, but we are now hard-wired to react quickly to any threat of another major fire. So when the Canyon Creek Fire broke out north of Carlton on Saturday, we were all on full alert. Our formal and informal information systems went into overdrive. Traffic on the Methow Valley News Facebook page skyrocketed. Fire again became the topic of nearly every conversation, within a few hours after the smoke began drifting over the hills of the lower valley. Friends and family checked in to see how we were.
The multiple-agency response to the Canyon Creek Fire appeared to be swift, coordinated and, for what turned out to be a relatively small fire, massive. As of early this week, we could add effective. At another community meeting on Monday night — this time at the Twisp Valley Grange — residents again listened to recaps of firefighting efforts and related community actions. Several in the audience praised the efficiency of fire suppression efforts. Some of us who listened to hours of scanner traffic over the weekend noted how much more clear and effective inter-agency communication seemed to be than in 2014.
We’ve come a long ways from the dark days of the Carlton Complex Fire. We’ll never be entirely protected from nature’s forces. But we will be more ready.