They started out miles apart, with different origins in dissimilar terrain, headed in opposite directions. Yet by Sunday afternoon, it seemed like the Cedar Creek and Cub Creek fires were conspiring to flush us out of the valley’s far reaches, ahead of the flames but not the smoke.
Billowing plumes from the two fires joined in one long eyebrow arching from Early Winters to the Chewuch River valley. Prevailing winds pushed the first fire’s smoke into the second fire’s personal space. They apparently have no problem coexisting, if at a distance.
The skies otherwise remained clear into Sunday evening, but the forces of nature got to work that night. Monday morning brought an all-too-familiar miasma of smoke and ash that indiscriminately afflicted residents in evacuation levels 1, 2 and 3, and the rest of us undesignateds as well. Nothing like a shared experience to sharpen our senses.
The incident response team sent to battle the Varden/Cub Creek/Delancy fires, which were the spawn of lightning strikes, was stretched the day it got here. The Cub Creek upstart blaze, most likely human-caused, split and redirected the response team’s resources. On both fronts, ground crews are digging fire lines, smokejumpers are taking the usual risks, helicopters and airplanes are scooping out our lakes on their endless round trips from fire to water. They’re doing everything they can. As of early in the week, it was unclear if there would be additional help. The West is on fire, and we’re in line.
The Cedar Creek Fire was finessing an end run around Sandy Butte while simultaneously challenging Highway 20 and the Methow River to rebuff it. Its every yard of eastward advance heightens the danger to homes, property and lives.
The Cub Creek Fire is blasting its way north, away from Winthrop but through scattered populated areas. Its destiny is probably Canada, and while it may be slowed by containment strategies there’s not much to stop it from getting there.
Looking at the fires’ footprints on the daily maps, they clearly are separate events. And yet — the eastern edge of the Cedar Creek Fire’s level 3 evacuation area was just a couple of miles from the western boundary of the Cub Creek Fire’s level 2 evacuation area. They don’t have to literally get together to cause trouble. But the implication is that they could.
By Monday evening, the Cub Creek Fire’s plume towered over the northern horizon, eclipsing its partner to the west. At the same time, the more mature Cedar Creek plume could be seen from west of the Cascades, in Seattle and as far away as the San Juan Islands.
Unofficial reports are that we’ve lost a few structures to the Cub Creek Fire. Lives have been at risk but, as far as we know, not lost. What was shaping up as another summer of intense tourism, just as the COVID restrictions are being eased, is being derailed by fire-related closures. Popular roads, campgrounds and trails are off limits. We will be dealing with these fires and their consequences until the snow falls.
Soon we’ll be paying more attention to reports on the percentage of “containment” achieved by the firefighters’ efforts. We may have an overly optimistic understanding of what those figures mean. Fires are “contained” the way a rodeo bull is “contained” within an arena: They can’t get out, but you don’t want to be inside the fence with them.
We’ve come a long way from 2014 in terms of understanding how fires are evolving in the climate change era. We know more, we prepare more, we communicate more. The questions raised in a community meeting at the Mazama Store last week were more nuanced and informed than they might have been a few years ago. We accept that this is where we are, and fires happen.
But nothing fully prepares any of us for the sudden emotional trauma of a level 3 evacuation. We grab our “go” kits and we go, knowing that everything we’re leaving behind could be vaporized. The Cub Creek Fire blew up literally around the corner from a cabin at the intersection of Cub Creek and West Chewuch Roads where I lived for seven years. If I still lived there, I’d be an evacuee now.
Friends and family from far away see the news reports and our social media posts, and worry about how we’re doing. We reassure them, if we can, all the while knowing that tomorrow’s reality may be radically different — and ours to deal with.