They read like a list of Civil War battlefields.
The fires of the Methow Valley are known by their distinctive names, if they are remembered at all. Mostly the names are associated with a location or geographical feature (like battlefields), which may help us place them in our recollections. Some are historically memorable and readily come to mind: Thirtymile. Tripod Complex. Carlton Complex. Rising Eagle Road. Twisp River Road.
They have many predecessors, up and down the valley, that have faded into time. Let’s take a look at the historical record, and see how many of these sound familiar: Upper Falls. Little Bridge Creek. Lone Mountain. Boundary, Tatoosh, Quartz, Quartz Mountain, Middle Quartz Mountain, Van Peak, Stub Creek, Farewell, Long Swamp, Thunder Mountain, Windy Peak, Needles, Isabel, Forks, Sweet Grass, Whiteface, Rockview, Pearrygin Lake, Williams Butte, War Creek, Poorman, Sunnyside Drive, Gambles Mill, Indian Dan, Squaw Creek, Flick Creek, Rex Creek Complex, Domke Lake, Tinpan, Myrtle, Deer Point, Deep Harbor, North Fork Twentyfive Mile, Pot Peak (1995 and 2004), Tommy Creek, Highland Flats, Union Valley, Tyee, Burnt Saw, Glory, Balky Hill, Harrier Hill, Raven, Libby South, Gold Creek, Cedar Creek (the 2006 one), Wolverine, Canyon Creek, Diamond Creek, Crescent Mountain, McLeod.
This list only goes back to the early 1990s and may not be complete. Many of these fires were small by today’s standards. Tripod (2006) was the biggest field of action until Carlton Complex came along in 2014.
Sometimes the same ground was revisited, like First Manassas and Second Manassas (or First and Second Bull Run, if you were with the Union forces) in the Civil War. Old burn areas can actually be useful in containing new fires, as they typically have less available fuel.
Each fire had its singular origin, when the outbreak of hostilities began: human carelessness, lightning strikes, or odd incidents like sparks from a tire rim or trees brushing a power line.
Each had its casualties: forests and shrub-steppe, wildlife, drainages, homes — and in the Thirtymile and Twisp River Road fires, human beings. Each had its rules of engagement — strategies, tactics, assaults and retreats, evacuations. Some might be said to have their own personalities. Carlton Complex burned like nothing we had ever seen before, redefining fire behavior in a way that the rest of the West would soon become familiar with.
And now we are amidst the combat zones of 2021, most of them still being fought: Barnaby. Cedar Creek (originally Varden). Cub Creek 2. Delancy. Muckamuck.
Our firefighting battlegrounds are not shrines (aside from the Thirtymile Memorial, which you should visit if you have not — when Cub Creek 2 allows). We try to restore and maintain the fire-damaged landscape, even as the scars slowly heal. You can’t drive down Highway 153 or over Loup Loup Pass without experiencing the Carlton Complex’s devastation from the closest possible perspective. Your next drive up West Chewuch Road will present a similar landscape, freshly devastated. In other parts of the valley, you can see the residual damage if you know where to look.
The battlefield analogy is admittedly stretched. In our firefighting battles, we’re all on the same side, aiming to protect the same things even when we disagree on how to best do that.
But you could argue, as some people do, that we have declared a version of war on nature with our human practices and policies. We care about such things.
Nature is indifferent. It’s not striking back when it catches on fire, it’s just doing its thing — at times with our assistance — and may keep on doing it despite our most determined intervention.
Every one one of us who has lived through our fire seasons has their own personal story to tell. For most of us, there was a good outcome. Others suffered terrible losses. We calculate our fires’ impact by total acreage, but we remember them for the tragedy they left behind. Some years are less combative than others. There’s no predicting what might happen, but we know this with certainty: With each passing year, the effects of climate change and forest management policies make it more likely that small fires are a thing of a past. These days, each new blaze is trying to make a big name for itself.