Tourists in hellfire

A vacation leads into a forest fire zone in the deep Cascades. Everyone ends up behaving badly.
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Canoeing at sunset in Stehekin

A vacation leads into a forest fire zone in the deep Cascades. Everyone ends up behaving badly.

During a bad forest-fire year in the Northwest woods, I found myself a tourist in the town of Stehekin. A tight, small community, Stehekin is accessed only by boat, plane, or boot. Stehekin is definitely backwoods, located deep in the North Cascades on the wild north edge of Lake Chelan. We had booked into Stehekin months before our vacation. Alarmingly in the days before our trek over the Cascade Mountains to our lodgings, headlines warned of wildfires converging on the area.

The news of fires worried us. We phoned ahead to inquire if we should cancel, but we eight adults and gaggle of teens were repeatedly assured by the innkeepers and public officials to hike on over. The fire was behaving, they said. Fires achieve notable names like 'ꀜThe Tillamook Burn'ꀝ or 'ꀜThe Great Blowup,'ꀝ but one labeled 'ꀜbehaving fire'ꀝ was new to me.

As we hiked the nine miles east over Cascade Pass from the wet to the mountain'ꀙs dry side, we sniffed smoke. Haze hovered around Johannesburg Mountain'ꀙs metamorphic grandeur. Haze and smoke were both bad signs, but we hiked on. The trek was glorious, abloom with purple gentians and dotted with ripe wild raspberries — very good signs.

Continuing our run of good signs, the National Park shuttle arrived as promised to pick us up at Cottonwood Campground 20 miles from Stehekin. We were the only group on this normally crowded van, one of the few vehicles in this neck of the woods. To be without hordes of hikers anywhere in the Cascades is usually a good happenstance. Our driver was a park ranger, his thick veneer glowing with perky good will. We asked, "How is the fire?" With flair, he declaimed, "When I wear this uniform, the official position is that the wild fires are not a threat to the town of Stehekin."

In Stehekin, we noticed seven miles of fire hose, snaking its way through town. Each residence displayed a plywood sheet spray-painted with an identification number. The town looked like it was getting ready for a big fire and total evacuation. As we unloaded, an official informed us that we were on "The evacuation list.'ꀝ He added, "Keep your shoes handy next to your bed, and your packs packed. We'll come get you." But for now with only the promise of the fire sweeping Stehekin, we could relax, we were told. We were among the counted. We wouldn't be left behind, crispy critters adding carbon to the wood'ꀙs nutrient load.

That evening instead of a naturalist's slide show on local rodents, we watched the nightly fire briefing along with videos of the fire north of Stehekin. The fire was politically correct and environmentally cool, doing its burn in a patchwork pattern, reducing fuel in the underbrush, felling older trees, and leaving behind wildlife corridors and islands of seed nurseries.

Suddenly the meeting went berserk with displays of small town America. One innkeeper accused the fly-in federal fire official of telling the media that Stehekin was on fire and being evacuated. The locals reported that distant relatives were frantic and tourists were staying away. I quietly thought that we wished we had believed the media reports.

Next the officials told us the rules for good behavior during the fire. We adults, not the teens, broke every one. We were told not to hike east, where the fire raged behind the ridge. At sunrise, two baby-boomers hiked east. How could they come all this way and not see the now-major attraction? Never finding the fire, they were convinced that the fire was not real, but a government conspiracy to keep hikers and climbers out of the wilderness, with its precious seed beds and sperm banks of species.

We were told not to mess with the heavy equipment barged in for firefighting. One of us hijacked the yellowest, heaviest machine, turned the key, and rode his life dream. Unfortunately he didn't know how to cut it off. To this day, the big rig is probably running amok, a mechanical Sasquatch caroming through the North Cascades.

We were told not to go boating if the helicopters were bucketing water out of the lake. No eggbeaters above, we rowed to view the local beavers, but as we reached mid lake, the helicopters started their flyovers. Suddenly fit as Olympic champions, we rowed toward shore. We had heard the story told worldwide among SCUBA divers that after a forest fire, found among the chars was a set of oxygen tanks strapped onto a skeleton. Apparently, a diver had been bucketed up with water and fish and dumped on a fire. What a flight! What a fall! What a vacation!

We promised the teens 'ꀜanything on the menu.'ꀝ They responded, 'ꀜBig, juicy steaks for us!'ꀝ However, given the difficulty of getting extra food up lake from Chelan, any hefty protein was fed to the firefighters flown in from New Orleans. We ate much lower down on the food chain.

We tried to rent bikes, only to discover that, in spite of the impending wildfire, the county was resurfacing the town's one road with black gunk. We were stuck, smoldering in our rooms. Closed to the east were the mountain trails. In front, the lake was closed for boating. The road to the bakery, the orchard, and the famous falls was closed. We stayed in our rooms and read, waiting for the evacuation call.

While in Stehekin, we were never told the exact evacuation plan for us. So our imaginations rolled. We'd ride a barge down to the orchard town of Chelan. There we would stop by a Red Cross Shelter to get vouchers for our needs. We'ꀙd not book into just any bad-apple motel, but at the luxurious Campbell's Lodge. With our vouchers, all would be free. The adults would drink free and freely on the deck above Chelan's main drag. The kids would go to the water park. The National Guard would helicopter us west back over the Cascades to our cars parked at the trailhead. We'ꀙd drive home. What a vacation!

Unsinged back home, we wondered why we went and why we were encouraged to go, fools in someone else's purgatory. We were loose cannons in a war between locals and their woods.

Later we heard that the ranger who told us that the fire officially was not a threat to the town of Stehekin had put all his worldly possessions in plastic bags and loaded them in his truck. If the fire swept through town, he planned to drive his truck into the lake, return after the conflagration, and retrieve his submerged but untoasted truck and goods.

We didn't become that desperate. But we had become snags in other people's natural disaster. Next time we'll know, given such advanced warning, to stay home and rebook.


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