As the fires of 2021 continue to extend their ragged edges, we’re at something of a tipping point in the Methow Valley where it can be hard to tell the difference between the pessimistic and the realistic, between optimism and cluelessness.
Is it pessimism or practicality to say that the summer tourism season should be mostly written off and we need to start focusing on autumn and beyond? Is it optimism or wishful thinking to insist that opening the North Cascades Highway will make it all better? Is it useful or distracting to argue about forest health practices now? Is it “negative” to report the many fire-related challenges, or helpful to know what our friends and neighbors are contending with?
We’re hearing all points of view, which is a healthy indicator of an involved community. What’s not healthy is understating or dismissing as irrelevant the facts on the ground, and in the air, that we are all living with.
Fact: The fires are not close to contained. That is no knock on the hundreds of firefighters who are exhausting themselves daily to protect us from the fires’ most harmful effects. Our appreciation for them and their daily progress is profound. Big fires are quirky and unpredictable. Even contained, the fires will continue to smolder until well into the fall. Anyone who has endured the fires of the past decade knows this.
Fact: It’s Smogust. Absent the kind of breezes that would fan the flames, the smoke is not going to lift soon. Air quality-related health concerns will persist even as the worst of the smoke finally drifts off. The smoke has already harmed more people than the fires probably will. Do not underestimate the implications of this health menace for residents and visitors.
Fact: Reopening the North Cascades Highway too soon could be counterproductive and possibly foolhardy. Look at the fire maps: It’s still dangerous. People we would want to come over are not going to return immediately just because they can. They’re aware of the news. People we’d rather not see — the ones who don’t pay attention to things like rules, boundaries, restrictions or community standards — would be more encouraged to venture our way. The first consideration in reopening the highway should be safety, not convenience.
Fact: The amateur firefighters and tactical critics among us are not helping with their alternative theories of fire suppression. Nobody is going to put out the Delancy Fire with shovels. Nobody is going to stop the Cedar Creek Fire with a bulldozer. Firefighters are not dragging things out to make more money. The men and women who came to this community from all over the country are here to do a tough job that they have been trained to do and have a lot of experience doing. We are also grateful for the invaluable work of our Okanogan County Fire District 6 volunteers. But we don’t have enough people here — or shovels or bulldozers — to do what the incident teams are doing.
Fact: If the fires went out and the smoke disappeared tomorrow, it would still take several weeks for the valley to get back up to speed for visitors. Businesses that were already overtaxed for lack of staff would be scrambling again. Many popular outdoor recreation areas won’t be accessible until the winter rec season begins. We saw what happened last summer when our carrying capacity was stretched to its limits, and in some cases beyond. But people will come back when it’s safe and they can enjoy our best features. They always have.
Fact: August has historically been unkind to the Methow Valley. We are entering the heart of the fire season, just a random spark or a lightning strike away from another 100,000-acre maelstrom. Weather projections are not encouraging. Our level of care must be as extreme as the fire danger. If you see someone doing something reckless or unsafe, react. It may not be wise to confront them — reckless people are rarely paragons of reason — but please report them.
Fact: We’ve been through this before. We know to be patient but persistent. We expect to be well-informed so we can make good decisions. We generously look out for each other with traditional Methow neighborliness. We have tackled recovery and rebuilding with intelligence, energy and high expectations.
Fact: Today’s facts will change over time. Stay current. Trust only reliable sources.
Major fires start and grow quickly. Their consequences are never resolved quickly. We’re all in a hurry to see the fires controlled and things start returning to normal. That will happen — not from wishing, but from working, as it has in the past. Our hard-earned reputation for resilience is the valley’s most effective marketing tool. We’ll be back.