Over the past five summers, August has become our month of reckoning in the Methow Valley.
On Aug. 1, 2014, while we already exhausted from enduring the Carlton Complex Fire’s seemingly unstoppable rampage, the Rising Eagle Road fire exploded above Highway 20 between Twisp and Winthrop. Soon after, a ferocious windstorm wreaked damage up and down the valley. The Little Bridge Fire erupted west of Twisp, followed by the Upper Falls Creek Fire in the Chewuch River drainage.
Later in the month, torrential rains and resulting mudslides destroyed or damaged a dozen homes in the Benson Creek area along Highway 153 and Frazier Creek along Highway 20. Three dams collapsed between Finley Canyon and Benson Creek. Both state highways were closed for repairs. At the end of the month, the Carlton Complex Fire was declared contained. At the time, it was the largest wildfire in Washington state history. And it wasn’t done with us.
The summer of 2015 was relatively painless until it instantly became emotionally excruciating. On Aug. 19, a sudden shift in weather conditions torqued what looked like a manageable fire on Twisp River Road into a deadly maelstrom.
Three firefighters — Methow Valley native Tom Zbyszewski, Richard Wheeler and Andrew Zajac — died in the fire. A fourth, Daniel Lyon, suffered severe burns and is still recovering.
The fire triggered evacuation orders in Twisp and Winthrop and knocked out power to hundreds of customers. Meanwhile, the rest of Okanogan County was bearing the brunt of the summer’s damage. The Okanogan Complex Fire grew to more than 400,000 acres, eclipsing the Carlton Complex Fire as the largest in state history.
The following summer, 2016, we got what, by comparison, seems like a break from major calamities. But we remained wary of any spark or plume, and continued rebuilding, redefining what we mean by preparedness and improving our communications systems.
In April 2017, the Carlton Complex Fire revisited us with a reminder of its destructive legacy: The mind-boggling Highway 20 slides closed that vital state route for weeks while emergency repairs were completed. By the time we stumbled into August, the steadily growing Diamond Creek Fire and others had laid down a persistent blanket of smoke that covered the whole region for several weeks.
This year, it’s the Crescent Mountain Fire that grew into a Level 3 evacuation threat in August for some residents and, in concert with other fires in the region, dumped a sludgy, nearly unbreathable layer of smoke over the valley. The McLeod Fire north of Mazama is evoking uncomfortable memories of the Diamond Creek Fire.
This year’s pall seems more oppressive. Last Sunday, I was driving home under a parchment-like sky when it occurred to me that I didn’t know where the sun was — at just past mid-day. I felt strangely disoriented. Cranking my head back a few more degrees, I located what looked like a huge, blood-orange spotlight struggling to cut through the murk. It wasn’t reassuring.
Driving through Winthrop Monday night, I noted that Riverside Avenue was strangely under-populated for August, and was reminded of how things were a few summers ago. I looked up something I wrote back in 2015 on a similar evening:
The quiet is disconcerting, but it’s the light that I notice. Usually, at this time of day, the lingering rays of summer sunshine splash around the hills like fluorescent paint flung from a giant bucket, a different décor every night. But this night, there is only smoke, graywashing the landscape, draping the valley in a gauzy scrim, absorbing the light like a cosmic black hole.
We get lots of fog here. Smoke is not like fog. Smoke smells, like a campfire that won’t go out. Fog is meteorological, smoke is cataclysmic. Somewhere, enough stuff is burning to fill the entire Methow Valley, and the Chewuch River valley as well, with a cloying layer of what used to be trees and brush and other such organic matter. Smoke is our forests and shrub steppe hillsides, rearranged into a different particulate form. I wonder, if you could weigh all the smoke, would it weigh as much as the material that fire transformed? I’m sure there is a scientific answer.
Smoke does not creep in on little cat’s feet. It lumbers in like a wayward drunk, as if it owned the place, and dares you to bounce it. There is enough breeze to blow it in here, but not enough wind to blow it back out. We wait for it to take its hangover elsewhere.
August is like that.