Last summer, someone dubbed it “smogust” – a seemingly interminable month of wildfire smoke that settled in the valley like it owned the place. Day after day, we peered through, tried to breathe and hoped to endure a smelly miasma that drove tourists away and forced some residents to flee, literally for their lives. It was a replay of August 2017, another smoke-doomed month that generated heightened awareness of the attendant health dangers.
After five years of contending with wildfires and their consequences, the valley entered the summer of 2019 with understandable trepidation. We heard all kinds of anecdotal chatter about preparations for another smoked-out month. Some tourism-dependent businesses prepared for – and experienced – a drop-off in customers during August. Major events – particularly weddings – basically skirted the month, for fear of cancellations. Residents took the month off for their own r-and-r, heading for places where the likelihood of fire was less.
The only noteworthy fire we’ve seen this year broke out – and was contained – on the last day of July. Then came August. We held our breaths, and not just metaphorically.
Turns out (so far) that we didn’t have to. We’ve been blessedly free of mammoth fires. Temperatures have flirted with triple-digits a few times, but have otherwise been relatively bearable. Periodic rain showers cooled things off. With two-thirds of the month gone, people are now talking about the best August we’ve experienced in years.
Last year saw a surge of fall visitations after the smoke dissipated enough for us to recognize where we were. I think we can expect something like that again this fall. People may postpone their intention to spend time in the Methow, but they’ll come if they can when conditions improve. There is always a pent-up demand. Methow Reservations is already helping more last-minute, opportunistic visitors this August. It would be great to push tourism farther into the “shoulder season” if our luck holds.
That said, no one is letting their guard down. Every day breaks with the potential for another wildfire that’s big enough to earn a formal name. The “new normal” fire season extends well into fall, and as a practical matter doesn’t end until we get a substantial snowfall. Anyone who has been here for a while knows how quickly things can change.
I was reminded of that this week when a news story noted that Aug. 19, 2015, was the day the Twisp River Fire broke out. The Carlton Complex Fire of 2014 was still a garish scar on the land, but the summer had been manageable up that point. It all changed in a horrible few hours.
I was the reporter who went out to cover the fire in its early stages. Firefighters were attacking it from the ground and air. I hung around for a while, then went back to the newspaper office. While I was driving those few miles, all hell broke lose. Winds shifted, the fire exploded and three fighters perished when their vehicle was trapped in the flames.
One of them was the valley’s own Tom Zbyszewski, who was 20. The others were Richard Wheeler and Andrew Zajac. Another firefighter in that crew, Daniel Lyon Jr., suffered full-body burns and has been recovering since, undergoing more than a dozen surgeries. Lyon has been attempting to collect civil damages related to the fire, but has run up against a state law that appears to prohibit him from collecting such damages.
Distant or recent, our history is always with us, and shapes how we contemplate life in the valley. Fire is part of that, and our landmark events don’t fade away. Each had its singular significance and long-term impacts. Part of our collective memory is the fatal July 2001 Thirtymile Fire, in which four firefighters died – because its implications rippled far beyond the Methow. The Carlton Complex Fire was a massive trauma that requires long-term healing. The Twisp River Fire ripped at our hearts.
All of which is reason to appreciate, and encourage others to appreciate, the August we’re enjoying. Nobody knows more than we do what that means.