August is a tense month in the Methow Valley. It’s the height of fire season, fraught with memories of previous summers that brought disruption and disaster to our community. Several people have noted in the past week that today (Aug. 19) marks five years since the deadly Twisp River Fire. Three firefighters died that day — Methow Valley native Tom Zbyszewski, Richard Wheeler and Andrew Zajac; Daniel Lyon was severely injured and is still recovering.
I don’t like using the word “anniversary” to describe the acknowledgment of such events, as they are not celebratory. And it may seem insensitive to remind people of what happened that terrible day. I think it would be disrespectful not to. Powerful memories are part of how we define ourselves. The rawness of a moment may fade but the impact is lasting.
I sometimes find it instructive to look back at that moment, and this week is one of those times. Following is an excerpt of the editorial I wrote for the Aug. 27, 2015 edition of the Methow Valley News:
Before this week, the Carlton Complex Fire of 2014 was the largest in Washington state history. The brutal destruction of landscape and structures, the painful impact on hundreds of lives, made it not just big but also an enduring nightmare.
But the much smaller Twisp River Fire … will for one reason be remembered as even worse. We lost people, young men who understood and accepted the challenge and potential sacrifice that went with putting on their firefighting gear.
Those of us who count on firefighters’ dedication and bravery to protect us can hardly imagine what that must be like. After all, how many of us go to work each day knowing that, because of the nature of our job, we might not come home that night? Shame on us if we ever lose sight of that.
There have been many firefighter heroics in the past week that saved lives and property, and those won’t be forgotten. But they won’t be remembered the same way that the death of heroes will. They are names to the rest of the world. To us, they were friends, neighbors, family, three-dimensional human beings who helped define what it means to live in the Methow Valley. These losses hurt and will not quickly fade away. They are personal, intimate, an emotional gut-punch to a community that has already taken more than its share.
For many of us, the tragedy of the Thirty Mile Fire more than a decade ago still resonates with shock and grief. The Twisp River Fire re-opens that wound and once again moves us to appreciate why we live here, and at the same time understand what living here might bring. Even now, we are but one lingering ember and a gust of wind away from another reality check.
The Carlton Complex Fire tested us in the extreme, and we did not back down. There is resiliency in rebuilding. The Twisp River Fire will test us in different ways … It’s worth remembering that the three men who died were protecting something they thought was worth saving. Ultimately, we must honor that sacrifice with our own commitments to the Methow Valley’s future.
Any loss of one so young, so bright, so promising is unfathomable to a close-knit community like ours, where individual triumphs are celebrated as shared achievements. Tom Zbyszewski was one of ours, he was us, and he loved being of the Methow. Growing up here, he never saw anything but the possible.
A week after he died fighting the Twisp River Fire, Tom’s passing is beyond unfathomable. We fail in searching for words to describe the void. Years from now we will feel the same way, because by fully inhabiting his own life he forever enriched ours. That is Tom’s profound gift to us, and we will treasure it always.
Cherish the vote
We should also take note of a significant date this week that we can call an anniversary and celebrate: The 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which granted women the right to vote, was ratified on Aug. 18, 1920. It is hard to imagine a time when this country prohibited women from taking part in the most important act in the democratic process: going to the polls and casting a meaningful vote. It’s also terrifying to contemplate that, today, women and men would be fighting a systematic assault on our voting rights. Insist on and take advantage of that right. In 2020, the future of American democracy is at stake for all of us.