The 27th Winthrop Rhythm and Blues Festival. It was supposed to be a relaxing weekend — and a tourist-driven boon to the economy, bringing thousands of music fans to the little Western-themed town that skirts both the Chewuch and Methow rivers. I was going to meet a group of friends — an annual tradition for the past 10 years.
This year our tradition took on a new tinge.
Since it began on Monday, July 14, the Carlton Complex fire in North Central Washington has burned nearly 250,000 acres — an area that encompasses small towns, lakeside golf communities and numerous ranches and farms and makes it the largest in recorded state history.
The fire, which began as multiple lightning-sparked fires in the Methow Valley, has merged into one massive complex with three incident command centers at its east, south and north ends. Governor Jay Inslee has toured the area and activated the Washington National Guard. Over 2,500 personnel are fighting the fire on multiple fronts.
On Thursday night, as the fire raced toward Pateros, I received a text message from a longtime, close friend who was planning to meet us for the festival. He and his girlfriend had just moved most of their worldly belongings to his family home in Malott to store before going to England for a year. “Was evacuated. Officially a homeless refugee. Probably won’t make it to Winthrop tomorrow. Will keep you posted.”
Already the fire was four times as big as the city of Seattle. And expected to keep growing.
Approaching Brewster and Pateros on Friday along the Columbia River — a road I’ve driven dozens of times before — the air was heavy. The smoke had been thick in Spokane the past few days, but here, at the source, it was a choking fog. Fire trucks and emergency personnel were all over the road, but it was still open and passable to Pateros. TV news crews were all over, interviewing people, stopping in a store for a cold drink. The fire had come through the night before and was still smoldering along the road, stopped only by the Columbia River.
And then, immediately off Highway 97, there’s this:
At least 15 homes in this small neighborhood were gone. Carol Hamshaw’s house went up, as did her daughter’s, the mayor. Seemingly very few things survived in this small neighborhood, although a pool, trailer and, surprisingly, the backyard playhouse of Carol’s granddaughter:
A short video illustrates it a little better:
It’s almost impossible not to take some meaning from the fact that the Pateros Community Church survived, while the homes all around it burned, though the presence of an asphalt parking lot surrounding it shows the value of defensible space.
While residents sorted through the remains of their homes — still smoldering — fire was advancing on the other side of the Methow River at the confluence with the Columbia. An Associated Press photographer told me to turn around and look up, as fire reached a house and put up thick, dark smoke. A minute later, two fire trucks raced into town from a staging location to the east and saved the house, at least partially.
How did all this happen? For those in Pateros, the immediate answer is pure geography.
At the bottom of the Methow Valley, at the confluence of the Methow and Columbia rivers, the town was a sitting duck. The fire raced south down the narrow Methow River valley on both sides and pushed out into the relative open as the valley drains into the Columbia.
This telling picture – not mine – has been all over the Internet.
The dissemination of images through news reporting and social media helped draw attention to the growing tragedy, but, as with any reporting, a kind of “telephone game” phenomenon changed and mangled information from beginning to end. The loss in Pateros and elsewhere is striking, but the entire town did not burn. Far more houses and businesses remain than were destroyed. That includes the prominent gas station/restaurant/hotel on the downtown waterfront, which was reported as a loss online.
By Sunday, a fleet of ServPro fire restoration trucks had arrived from Spokane to help clean up smoke damage and the gas station and restaurant were very much open and running on generator power.
Even Saturday the news crews had thinned a little, and more civilian traffic was coming through Pateros, full of onlookers and, of course, people taking pictures. Highway 153 had opened, allowing access north into the Methow Valley, winding 34 mostly charred miles up the river.
In Winthrop, the blues festival was still on, though attendance was noticeably thinner than previous years. Until that morning, the only access to Winthrop had been from the west, over the North Cascades Highway (Hwy 20). The road continuing east over Loup Loup Pass and Okanogan, directly in the active fire zone, remained closed.
Comments on the festival’s Facebook page questioned why organizers didn’t cancel. The festival was, they responded, a safe and needed refuge for locals. Fire officials assured attendees that the festival site -- and Winthrop more broadly -- was actually one of the safer places in the Methow Valley, with a wide open area next to the river, and quick access to escape west on Highway 20 if needed. With power out for the entire valley, the festival ran on generators, had hot showers and actively raised money for fire relief. A Red Cross evacuation shelter was less than a mile away.
They invited any local residents to come for free, where they could camp, get hot food and take showers.
It was difficult to tell there was a massive fire burning in the valley behind. Winthrop was spared smoke because prevailing winds blew it south and east, away from town. Attendees would have to look behind them, away from the music stage, too see what was happening a few miles away:
By Sunday, the towns of Twisp and Winthrop seemed, on the surface, relatively normal. Though power was out — and could be for the foreseeable future — hotels were occupied and gas stations and stores running on generator power remained open. There were plenty of people on the streets.
Out front of the Cinnamon Twisp Bakery, a local must if you’re ever in the area, residents and employees were chatting like any other day. But the bakery was technically closed. With no power, they couldn’t safely make and sell food, but they could brew coffee and offer fruit and juice at a table outside. Three employees, Dara Farmer, Imelda Barnard and owner Katie Bristol, staffed the table. The coffee and conversation were free, with donations taken for another employee who lost her home.
For them, it was more than giving people coffee. It was a place to gather, share information and commiserate as a local community affected by large-scale loss.
“I give hugs 24/7,” Farmer told me.
Heading back south toward Pateros on Sunday, down the blackened Methow River valley, it was suddenly visible how the smoke was blowing into eastern Washington. A few miles up the road, in Twisp and Winthrop, the skies were clear of smoke, while Spokane skies grew thick:
Several miles above Pateros, the road into Alta Lake was now open. The town itself includes a popular state park with boaters, and a golf course surrounded by dozens of homes. I’d seen news reports of houses burned there, but wasn’t sure of the extent.
Turns out, it was quite extensive.
The Wenatchee World reports 52 homes here burned. It seemed anything not on green, irrigated grass burned. That includes all the golf carts:
And even though homes were gone, and newspaper boxes melted, the Wenatchee World was still being delivered Sunday.
With phones out, no power and spotty cell service, the old means of communication — printed paper, signs, billboards — became not only useful, but necessary. That’s how information is getting out in Pateros to citizens (and news media) coming through, as this makeshift billboard on Highway 97 shows:
Journalists are told to be unbiased, neutral observers, just “telling the facts.” So often they’re told to keep any personal opinion or investment out of a story. In many cases, that’s absolutely necessary.
But journalists, too, are humans. They think, they feel, they are affected by tragedy and grief. And sometimes they bring their experiences and personal lives — their biases, if you will — to the stories they report.
It was out of coincidence that I was already going to the Methow Valley on this weekend for the music festival, but in the absence of that, at any other time, I still would have traveled to cover the fires. Anyone who’s lived long enough in Central and Eastern Washington knows the summer routine: dry conditions equals fire danger. It’s not uncommon in Ellensburg, Wenatchee or Omak to deal with days (or weeks) of smoke from regional fires.
This fire, though, seemed different. Big, fast-moving, closer to home and to civilization. It wasn’t just a far-off forest fire affecting unoccupied wilderness and brushland.
Having grown up in Grand Coulee, this region is my backyard. I’ve hiked more miles in the Methow Valley and the nearby Pasayten wilderness than anywhere else. I’ve been to the Cinnamon Twisp Bakery at least once a year for the last 10. This was personal because I know and appreciate the landscape and the people who live there. I know the nuances of how to report there — that the Brewster and Pateros area is a tree fruit economy, that the shrub-steppe vegetation type and dominant sagebrush of the lower Methow burns hot and fast, and that this fire was different than other forest fires.
It was about to get more personal.
Two days later, I heard again from my friend in Malott: His family’s house, which his parents built themselves over 20 years ago, had burned, along with another house meant for his grandmother. His father’s beekeeping business, gone. It made national NBC news. I have a jar of his honey in my kitchen.
It was suddenly apparent that this was happening on my home turf, a reality that all people in fire-prone areas — particularly here on the “dry side” — too long took for granted.
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