Prometheus in Paradise: Fires in the Methow Valley bring loss but reveal a committed community
The East side is burning. A certain degree of compartmentalization is required to brush away images of treasured places in flames, wildlife fleeing for their lives, and homes transformed into piles of blackened ash. At 270,312 acres as of this post, the Carlton Complex fire is the largest in Washington history. Over 2,000 firefighters representing 43 crews from all over the northwest have descended on the Methow Valley and Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. The firefighting resources of the West are being taxed by at least 16 major fires burning in both Washington and Oregon.
These events are enormous in scope. Mine is smaller story. Heavy smoke, closed roads, and fear are diverting visitors from the summer paradise of the Methow Valley and pummeling the small local businesses that depend on the short season for the bulk of their annual revenue. Restaurants, hotels, outfitters, and farmers are watching the summer slip by, waiting for the people to come.
Undeterred by smoke or fire, I planned a weekend visit to my beloved Methow Valley to drop as much of my scant play money on the local vendors as possible. My journey East began with a hike around Maple Pass Loop, a local favorite for stunning alpine vistas with only moderate exertion. The smoke was heavy, obscuring the grander scene of Glacier Peak and the numerous towering spires of the North Cascades. It filtered the sunlight a red-gold and put the color riot of summer foliage in soft focus. With the greater peaks and crags masked in filmy sheets, my attention was drawn to sights in shorter view. I found myself lingering in the cool sinks of sparkling snowmelt cascades where monkey-flower (Mimulus Lewisii) and false hellebore (Veratrum viride) gathered. I was rapt by the myriad of butterflies and fuzzy bumble bees sipping from pollen cups.
This phenomenon of closer examination extended as I dipped down into Winthrop. After checking in at the North Cascades Mountain Hostel, I strolled to the Old Schoolhouse Brewery for dinner and a pint. The atmosphere was quite altered from my previous visits; there was no music on a Friday night, and families and fun-seekers were replaced by tanned and sooty folk in Carharts and T-shirts. Firefighters and Forest Service employees leaned on the bar, sipping well-earned cold beers at the end of a long shift. After a subdued meal, I strolled down to the banks of the Chewuch River. I passed a fire command post in an office building where people were busy on phones and radios, inspecting large maps tacked to the wall with silver push-pins. It was over 85 degrees at 8:30 PM with a thick grey sky. I wandered down to the irrigation canal and waded in up to my knees in the cold water. A cloud of tadpoles swam around my shins. A red squirrel scolded me endlessly as I invaded his watering hole.
The next morning, I headed out early to the town of Twisp. Blue Star coffee is the stuff of legend, and the fullness of the parking lot made it evident. A morning social hub, the coffee bar was abuzz with news of the fires; the old ones, the new one that had begun the night before, who had lost homes, who was grateful to be spared. When I asked the barista about business she said that if it were not for the fire crews, they would be in trouble. The fires had kept many visitors away. However, the influx of caffeine-seeking blaze-busters has kept the small business afloat.
My next stop was the Methow Valley Farmers Market in Twisp’s downtown. Here, the impact of Prometheus’ mirth was most evident. Farmers cannot make their sugary nectarines and perfect peppers keep into the winter months. This is their time, flooded with the abundance of year-long toil and strain. Who will buy the ripe berries and tasty zucchini? I did, as much as I could.
Amy Wu of Rest Awhile Country Market was handing out samples of sweet juicy peaches from her booth at the market. “The fire took about 30% of my farm.” She said while flipping through terrifying photos on her smartphone. She shows me images of burnt out vehicles and buildings. “But the worst part is that no one is coming to the market. I don’t have customers so I cannot employ the workers I usually do in the summer.”
Rest Awhile is in Pateros, a community largely scorched to the ground by the summer’s fires. She tears up when she talks about the bravery of the firefighters, “They have been amazing. I don’t know what we would do. . .” she trails off and we just look at each other and nod a little. She hands me one of her large, perfectly-ripe peaches and reminds me to rinse off the ash before I eat it.
Signs of gratitude to the firefighting crews are everywhere around the valley, from private homes to businesses. At the market, communications specialists from the Forest Service have set up an information booth for residents and visitors. The positive sentiments for those on the front lines are universal among the vendors, but so is another sentiment: the incredible generosity and resiliency of the community. The people of the Methow Valley have come together in unimaginable ways to help one another through this time of crisis. Community buildings overflow with donations of food, clothing, supplies, animal feed, and other essentials. Of the nearly twenty vendors and business owners I spoke to, every one mentioned the support of the community. Perhaps, as the smoke has veiled the grand views of the mountains drawing attention to the objects closer in, so has the smoke faded the grand goals of an abundant summer and revealed the treasure of a good neighbor in a time of need.
I found a perfect quiet spot at the confluence of the Twisp and Methow rivers and read Margaret Atwood. Her tale of a dystopian future seemed fitting with the smoke that swirled in the northern sky. Then came the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The temperature began to drop and thunder rolled in the distance. The sky darkened, drops began to fall, and I sought refuge in my car just as the lightening ripped across a wall of black clouds. I returned to the Glover Street Market where the owners were generously holding my giant box of market produce in their cooler to keep it safe from the intense summer heat. I sat at the counter of the small cafe inside the market as extreme winds flung debris and ash through the air as the storm descended. Sirens blared from all directions and did not stop. Signs blew over, and a whirlwind of black dust rose up from what used to be Pateros. The lights flickered.
A family with a home between Winthrop and Twisp came in, the two little girls still in swimsuits. A neighbor had called to say he was evacuating his property because of falling trees, and the family had decided to do the same. Apparently, many trees had fallen across State Route 20, and the fire crews were out in the storm with chainsaws working feverishly to keep the only evacuation route open. The lightening continued and frantic phone calls came in about 200-year-old oak trees being ripped out of the ground by the gusts. A woman left in tears to evacuate her horses because of a new fire near her property caused by the storm.
After some time, and several cups of soothing tea, the storm cleared. I decided to venture out and make my way back to the West side. As predicted, the fire crews had made short work of the trees that had blocked the highway. Their trucks lined the side of the road, and only leaves and small branches remained. As I passed through Winthrop, I saw residents and visitors shaking hands with the people who had kept the roads clear. I knew I would return soon to this place, its spirit too strong to be stymied by fire or storm. With the Carlton Complex fire 92% contained, the time has come to return to the Methow Valley and reap the bounty provided by the hard work of the residents of this small and very special community.
Lead Photo: Mountain heather is the highlight as smoke veils the mountains at Maple Pass.
Elissa Kobrin is an M.Ed. candidate at Western Washington University and North Cascades Institute. She is also a wilderness ranger with North Cascades National Park. When she is not searching for moose, she is keeping the world safe, one Band-aid at a time.
All photos by the author.