On July 14, 2014, the Methow Valley as we know it changed forever. That was the day when what came to be called the Carlton Complex Fire jumpstarted into an unimaginable maelstrom of destruction that left enduring after-effects.
Five years later, the experience is still painful to remember, difficult to forget, and impossible — even now — to fully assess. As a reporter, editor, observer and columnist, it should be my job to help you put things into a broader perspective. But I keep thinking, compared to what? The Carlton Complex Fire created an entirely new perspective point, one we have been referencing ever since. There is “BCCF” and “ACCF,” and that’s the prism through which we now view the wildfire experience here.
Halfway through July 2019, we’re grateful for mostly-tolerable weather but remain attentive and wary, because we know fire season is fickle and unpredictable. Every spark or puff of smoke gets our immediate attention. Succeeding summers have taught us to stay vigilant, and we’re better prepared for fire-related eventualities. In an odd way, we can attribute that to what we learned starting with the Carlton Complex Fire. It was hard-earned wisdom.
I’ve been going back through Methow Valley News issues from that time, as the five-year anniversary of the fire’s outbreak approached, and found I didn’t have to refresh my memory. It’s all still vivid. As a newspaper staff, we worked staggering hours to cover a dizzying array of events, while dealing with our own personal fire-related challenges. I’m proud of the professionalism and dedication we practiced to keep people as well-informed as we could. And I remain overwhelmed by the energy, compassion, generosity and innovation with which the entire community spontaneously greeted every challenge, every day. That spirit hasn’t diminished.
Anniversary dates — typically those ending in a 5 or a 0 — always present questions about retrospective coverage. The Carlton Complex Fire’s anniversary markers are not something to celebrate, but they must be acknowledged. What happened then and since is entwined with the Methow Valley’s DNA strands forever.
We decided that we didn’t have to write about everything all at once in one issue, and that revisiting some of our coverage from those days could help people understand the tenor of time — the fear, the uncertainty, and the collective community response that set the pattern for how we have dealt with subsequent fires. Recovery, resiliency, rebuilding and preparation became not just hopeful phrases but rather our way of life. We wrote about those topics exhaustively in two special publications, “Trial by Fire” and “Living With Fire.” Copies of both are still available, for free, at the newspaper office, or you can see them digitally reproduced on our website.
In this week’s issue, reporter Marcy Stamper — whose byline was shared with reporter Ann McCreary on the main story in our first newspaper published after the Carlton Complex Fire exploded — takes an updated look at some of our long-term recovery efforts, disaster preparation protocols and other response programs. Thankfully, we have not lost momentum on those vital issues. You’ll find those stories on page B1.
We also decided to reprint some of the material from that July 23, 2014, issue, including the front page story that won a national deadline-reporting prize for Marcy and Ann. You’ll find a total of four pages from that issue inside the B section, including the column I wrote about how we physically produced the paper that week, when the power was out and every form of communication was compromised. I think our coverage fairly crackled with the urgency and intensity of events, while offering useful information about how to cope and find help.
I came across some other materials — stories, graphics, maps, photos — from our 2014 coverage that may be of interest as well, so you’ll likely see some of the reprinted in coming weeks. It’s said that breaking news stories are the first draft of history. Having lived it, I think we are entitled to define it. That will be an ongoing task, one that future generations will appreciate.