Wildfires threaten Methow's long road to recovery

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The Chiwaukum fire burned more than 14,000 acres near Leavenworth and Entiat last year.

This article originally appeared in the Aug. 3, 2015 issue of High Country News. Since its publication, fires have again blown up in north-central Washington. Three firefighters died this week in the Methow Valley and a fourth is in critical condition at Harborview Medical Center. The towns of Winthrop and Twisp have been evacuated.

On Thursday, July 17, 2014, as a lightning-sparked wildfire known as the Carlton Complex was swelling into the largest fire in Washington state history, Carlene Anders drove 15 winding miles up the Methow Valley to try to save a house. By the time she and the other members of the Pateros Volunteer Fire Department arrived, the fire was roaring through trees and shrubs on both sides of the valley. The afternoon sun glowed through clouds of soot and ash. Emergency vehicles lined the highway, and a helicopter whirred overhead, a bucket of water suspended from its belly.

Anders, who was one of the first two female smokejumpers in the state of Washington, has been fighting fires in and around the Methow Valley for almost 30 years. But she was stunned by the intensity of the Carlton Complex. “Wow,” she thought. “How are we ever going to control this?”

Anders and her fellow crewmembers began to pull the hoses off their engine, certain that downvalley, their own town was safe. Pateros is bordered on the south by Lake Pateros, a reservoir on the Columbia River, and on the north by a high mesa topped with a 125-acre apple orchard belonging to the Gebbers family, Okanogan County’s largest private landowner. For three decades, the Gebbers orchard had served as an impenetrable firebreak for Pateros. But that evening, the weather was unusually dry, hot and windy, and the Carlton Complex, which had started three days earlier as four separate fires, was moving with terrifying speed, covering more than an acre every four seconds.

As the Pateros firefighters joined the battle, their department chief, Jerry Moore, who was vacationing in Alaska, got a call from his son Eric in Pateros.

The fire, Eric said, had just jumped the orchard.

* * *

Okanogan County is used to wildfire. The nation’s first smokejumpers plummeted into its forests in 1939, and in recent years residents have contended with some of the state’s largest and most damaging burns: The 2006 Tripod and Tatoosh complexes, the 2003 Fawn Peak Complex, and the 2001 Thirtymile Fire, which killed four firefighters. But not even Okanogan County was prepared for the Carlton Complex.

In Pateros, there had been no evacuation orders, no emergency alerts. From Alaska, Jerry Moore called his assistant chief, who was working alongside Anders, but cell service was spotty and Moore could not get through. Moore eventually reached his captain, who was able to alert the assistant chief by radio: Pateros and its 650 residents were in danger.

When the volunteers heard the news, they piled into their rigs and barreled, sirens wailing and lights flashing, down the narrow, twisting road toward Pateros. They covered the distance in just 12 minutes, but by the time they reached town, flames were spilling toward the houses at the base of the mesa. Though the sun was still up, it was as dark as night.

The firefighters began canvassing the town, using their engines’ loudspeakers to call on their neighbors to evacuate. George Brady, a local fur buyer and trapper and the town’s mayor pro tem, was carrying a pile of 19th-century fur-company records to his truck when the Pateros engine roared by his house. He remembers hearing a voice crackle through the speakers: “Drop that shit and get out of here!” He did.

* * *

The Carlton Complex destroyed 131 homes within the Pateros school district. The high school alone sustained nearly $2 million in damages. When the sun rose on Friday, July 18, the town’s power was down, the water supply was drained, and the ground was still warm underfoot. Most residents had fled to hotels, campgrounds, and the homes of friends and relatives. City Administrator Jord Wilson, who grew up in Pateros and now lives in nearby Brewster, crammed dozens of people into his and his neighbor’s houses. (“They took turns cooking breakfast,” he remembers.)

Carlene Anders, like many of the volunteers, was unable to reach some of her own family members during the worst of the fire. She knew that her teenage daughter, also a volunteer firefighter, was helping evacuate the town, but not until 10:30 on Thursday night did she learn that her husband, son and elderly mother were safe. Her mother’s home — a family homestead that Anders helped build — had burned to the ground.

The Carlton Complex would burn for another 38 days, eventually covering a record-breaking 256,108 acres — 400 square miles of public and private land. It destroyed 256 homes and 55 cabins. Its heat and speed gave it a kind of whimsical cruelty: Some houses were reduced to blackened chimneys, while those next door were left untouched. That no one suffocated or burned to death in the fire was, in the months afterward, reflexively described as miraculous. (Robert Koczewski, a retired state trooper, died of a heart attack while defending his Methow Valley home; John Daniel “Danny” Gebbers, the 84-year-old patriarch of the orchard family, never fully recovered from a concussion he suffered while fighting the fire on his property, and died in October.)

The fire burned more than a thousand miles of public and private fencing, leaving orchards vulnerable to browsing deer. It killed 900 head of cattle. It cut short the summer tourist season in the county’s mountainous northern end, forcing restaurants and shops to lay off staff or even shut their doors. It left the landscape littered with tons of burned cars, mattress springs, and other debris. It closed highways and interrupted cell and Internet service for weeks; during the height of the fire, reporters for the Methow Valley News filed handwritten stories while bathing in the river and cooking on camp stoves. It exposed economic divides usually obscured by topography and distance. Sandy Moody, who owns a bed and breakfast in the small town of Twisp and volunteered at the local emergency shelter, remembers a woman arriving in tears: Her family had just saved up enough money to fill their freezer with meat, and during the week-long power outage, everything spoiled.

* * *

State records obtained by the Methow Valley News show that firefighters and equipment were stretched extremely thin during the early days of the fire, and many county residents believe more could have been done to control the fire and protect homes. Alex Thomason, a local lawyer, is preparing to file an $80 million suit against the state Department of Natural Resources on behalf of 205 residents, charging that the department failed in its responsibility to contain the fires on its land. (The department, which led the early response to the fire, has defended its actions, pointing to the extreme weather conditions.)

It’s not clear if more initial resources could have reduced the fire’s costs. What is clear is that the Carlton Complex is an especially dramatic example of a disturbing pattern: Over the last two decades, wildfires in the continental U.S. have gotten larger, more damaging to homes and property, and more expensive to fight. That’s partly because a century of fire suppression has created thick stands of trees and shrubs, and partly because more people have moved into fire-prone areas along the urban-wildland interface. But it’s also because the climate is changing. As extreme heat and drought become more familiar in the West, fires are igniting more frequently and spreading more quickly. Fuel treatments — the deliberate burning and large-scale thinning of vegetation in order to slow fire spread — are becoming less effective in some places.

“You can classify fire systems into two types, fuel-limited and climate-limited,” says Dominick DellaSala, president and chief scientist of the nonprofit Geos Institute. “The further we get into climate change, the more the system is going to tip toward climate- rather than fuel-driven fires, and the more the climate is going to overwhelm what we can do to minimize fire spread with fuel reduction.”

In Okanogan County last July, an extremely dry spring and summer, combined with above-normal temperatures, had left the forests and shrublands parched. High winds further stressed a thirsty landscape. On Monday, July 14, when more than 2,400 lightning strikes hit northeastern Washington during a 12-hour period, the conditions on the ground were such that any spark or ember was all but guaranteed to ignite.

And the Carlton Complex didn’t stay in the woods. Only about a quarter of the area burned was forested. Half was shrubland, where the effects of fuel treatments are short-lived; the rest was grassland, farmland, or sparsely vegetated. Prescribed burning and large-scale thinning can still help contain fires and reduce their intensity, and researchers are currently studying the effects of previous fuel treatments within the forested area burned by the Carlton Complex. But fuel treatments were never designed to insulate humans from wildfire, and they’re even less likely to do so now.

In light of such changes, many Western fire researchers are urging us to treat wildfires more like we treat floods and earthquakes: not as adversaries that can be mastered, but as inevitabilities for which we need to be far better prepared.

Susan Prichard, a University of Washington forest ecologist who lives in the northern end of the Methow, spoke to her son’s sixth-grade campout in September, shortly after the Carlton Complex was finally contained. “One boy said, ‘So that was bad, but we’re done with fires now, right?’ I’ve spent my career trying to get people to understand the importance of fire, to understand its role in the ecosystem, but I got choked up when I had to say, ‘No. No, we’re not done with fires.’”

* * *

No one in Okanogan County expected catastrophe. Pateros’ disaster plan was a generic guide distributed by the county, and the fire department lacked the detailed local maps they needed to check on remote residences. Mayor Libby Harrison, who had been elected only six months earlier and had little governing experience, resigned to help her own family recover from its losses; George Brady, mayor pro tem, whose family, home, and collection of historic trapping records escaped the flames, was sworn in to finish her term.

During those first surreal hours and days, the firefighters ate little and rested less, trying to help fire victims while still answering panicked calls about smoldering stumps and spot fires. The city council chambers were overwhelmed with donated goods and offers of help. Mayor Brady called on Team Rubicon — a disaster-relief organization founded and staffed by military veterans — which sent a 70-member incident command team and a mobile computer lab. For the next 17 days, the Rubicon crew led cleanup efforts and collected the documentation needed for federal emergency aid. “We told them we were going to flatten their trailer tires to get them to stay longer,” Brady jokes.

Okanogan County, which is defined on the south by the Columbia River and on the north by the Canadian border, was one of the last places in Washington reached by white settlers. Even now, in good weather, the twisting drive to Seattle over the North Cascades takes three and a half hours; in bad weather, it is impossible. The county’s 40,000 residents live in a handful of tiny towns, each separated from the others by long, narrow highway miles and a distinct sense of self. To many of those who move here from busier places, the isolation — even the insularity — is part of the romance, just like the salmon streams and snowbound winters and gentle meadows of blooming balsamroot. But the fire was a sprawling, complicated, and enduring disaster, and it required a countywide response. For a set of towns that knew each other as high school sports rivals, that wasn’t always easy.

Anders was appointed to the Pateros town council after Brady’s promotion to mayor, and she met daily — sometimes twice daily — at the darkened town hall with other local leaders. The county’s lack of coordination was complicated by exhaustion, and by new fears: On Aug. 1, the Rising Eagle Road Fire, near Twisp, destroyed eight homes and interrupted a visit by Gov. Jay Inslee, who had flown in to see the aftermath of the Carlton Complex. Twenty-four hours later, a major windstorm caused more power outages. On Aug. 21, when heavy rains hit bare hillsides on the eastern side of the county, mudslides destroyed or damaged 15 more homes.

To manage its recovery, the county relied on an approach developed by a national coalition of volunteer disaster-assistance organizations: It established two local long-term recovery organizations and an overarching recovery group for the county as a whole. The groups included both local officials and ordinary citizens, many of whom volunteered their own time.

Anders, who stepped up to head the Brewster-Pateros Long-Term Recovery Organization, left her day-care business in the hands of her employees and volunteered for 72 days straight. “I just kept expecting someone else to take charge,” she remembers. But she kept showing up, in part because she felt indebted to her town. In 2002, when her son was born more than four months premature, Pateros rallied around her family, helping Anders keep her business open and raising money to defray more than $3 million in medical bills. (Her son, who weighed less than two pounds at birth, is now a healthy 12-year-old.)

Though Anders had served on the board of the local ski school for many years, she had no political experience other than her brief time on the town council. Suddenly, she was coordinating hundreds of volunteers and a bewildering array of activities. “Just to get the acronyms right was huge,” she says. In late September, a church in the nearby town of Wenatchee funded her position with the Brewster-Pateros recovery organization through the end of 2014. Soon afterward, the county received two large anonymous donations that funded staffing for both the local and county recovery groups, and Anders was hired to lead the countywide group.

Last November, when I visited Pateros, Anders seemed comfortable at the helm. Early one Saturday morning, she stood in a downtown parking lot dressed in jeans and a fire-department jacket, her hair in a practical ponytail and a smile on her broad face, welcoming a group of sleepy AmeriCorps volunteers from all over the country.

“Anyone here ever built fence?” Anders called out, grinning. Two tentative hands went up. “Whoo-ee,” Anders teased. “I’m seeing a lot of faces going, ‘OK, what am I in for?’ ” After dispensing encouragement, a few tips — “let the equipment do the work” — and thanks, she left the volunteers with Shane and Sarah Rinker, a young couple from the nearby town of Cashmere who had trained as “disaster chaplains” through their church.

“Look, this is a big, big deal,” Shane Rinker said. “Some of the people who have been through this fire, they’ve lost heirlooms, they’ve lost their great-grandpa’s shotgun, they’ve lost everything. They may say, ‘I don’t know why this happened.’ ”

He looked sternly at his charges. “You don’t have any answers, so don’t try to come up with them. Say, ‘I don’t know why this happened, but I’m so glad you’re safe, and we’re standing by you.’”

* * *

As Anders organized volunteers in Pateros, Mark Nelson shuffled through the ashes of the Carlton Complex, doing what he could to prepare his property for winter. Nelson, a 61-year-old carpenter with a bad back and an artistic bent, lives in the thinly populated hills above Brewster, Washington, about 10 miles northeast of Pateros. On this blustery Saturday, a group of volunteers from the Seventh-day Adventist Church was helping him insulate his carport with a layer of blueboard. The only remnant of his two-story wooden farmhouse was a pile of blackened boulders, part of its century-old foundation. “Last year, when I was thinking about selling the house, I asked a realtor if I should remodel it, and he said, ‘Remodel it with a match,’ ” Nelson said, laughing. “I guess that’s what happened.”

Nelson is familiar with fire: Almost every summer, he watches smoke rise from forest fires to the north. Last summer, he kept an eye on the Carlton Complex, and on the night the fire hit Pateros, he reckoned that the flames were still about two days from his house. He had heard no calls to evacuate. Shortly after 7:30 p.m., he went to bed.

When he awoke three hours later, his room was filled with light. He looked out the window and saw flames pouring over the nearest ridgeline. He scrambled out his front door and into the driver’s seat of his Plymouth Voyager, wearing nothing but a pair of jeans and carrying his ancient white housecat, Fluffy. A wave of intense heat, moving ahead of the fire, ignited the grass and shrubs around him. He started the car, knowing he had just seconds to escape.

Blinded by the thick smoke, he soon ran off the road and stalled out in a meadow. Barefoot, cat in arms, he hobbled back toward the road. There, from a small crest where the air was relatively clear, he saw that the flames had already overwhelmed his house. A young doe emerged from the smoke, followed by five quail and a pair of chukars. The animals stood nearby as Nelson crouched on the dirt, shielded his cat as best he could, and braced for the fire to pass over them all.

The speed of the Carlton Complex, combined with some fortunate geography, probably saved Nelson’s life: He and Fluffy waited out the flames in a shallow dip in the road, where the air was relatively cool. (Days later, on the next rise, he would find a handful of pennies that had been blackened and twisted almost beyond recognition.) He escaped with second-degree burns on his arms and buttocks. Fluffy suffered only a wounded ego — though when they finally made it to the hospital, she got her own room.

More than three-quarters of the households affected by the Carlton Complex were uninsured or significantly underinsured; Nelson’s home had not been eligible for fire insurance. He lives on disability payments. Since returning to his land late last summer, he had been camping in his carport, the only building still standing on his property. He salvaged the woodstove from his farmhouse, and bought a sink and a mattress with emergency funds from local churches and relief organizations. He bought dimensional lumber, and began to divide the carport into rooms. He added an old television and a single battered chair.

In November, the Plymouth Voyager that Nelson and Fluffy abandoned on the night of July 17 listed on a nearby hillside, its frame a black and empty shell. Still inside were Nelson’s boots, which he’d grabbed when he left his house but hadn’t had time to put on; the heat of the fire had melted their soles to the floor. The day before the fire hit, he had loaded the cargo space with paintings — his own, his mother’s, his late wife’s — but all that was left of them was a pile of ash and broken glass.

Like almost everyone else affected by the Carlton Complex, Nelson was still talking about his experience. As he walked toward help that night, he said, embers sparkled across both sides of the valley — red, yellow, even blue. The flickering carpet of light against the black sky was, he said, spectacularly beautiful. He’d like to paint it, he said, but he hadn’t done so yet.

Instead, as the temperature dropped, he was spending a lot of time drinking beer and looking out the window of his carport. He had always loved the view from his property, but he had come to hate the black clouds of dust and ash that still rose on windy days, coating his shoes and Fluffy’s paws, along with every surface of his makeshift apartment. “Sometimes,” he said, “I’m really tempted to leave.”

* * *

In her pickup truck, which functions as a mobile office, Carlene Anders keeps a copy of a graph showing the emotional phases of disaster. First come the initial highs of survival and community cohesion, followed by a jagged drop into disillusionment, followed by a slow, unsteady, and indefinitely long rise toward recovery and reconstruction. Along the way are “trigger events,” such as anniversaries, that remind survivors of the disaster and its costs. When I returned to Okanogan County in May, 10 months after the fire began, the county was still climbing toward recovery. “We’re not even close to getting people back to where they were,” Anders said. “The volume of loss is just too great.”

Directing the county-wide recovery organization still required about 80 hours a week. Anders’ husband, Gene Dowers, a postal worker with his own heavy schedule, had long since taken over all the household chores. (In the spring, he had joined the volunteer fire department, in part to see more of his wife and daughter.) Anders and her colleagues had testified to the state Legislature and met with the governor in Olympia, and they had hosted visits from members of the state’s congressional delegation and their staff. They had attended hundreds of meetings and put thousands of miles on their vehicles.

“I’ve gotten a whole college degree in the past nine months,” she said. “I’ve had to come up 100 percent in politics, 100 percent in disaster recovery, 100 percent in just about everything you can think of.”

Forty-two families who lost their homes in the fire — and who had been uninsured or underinsured — were still waiting to rebuild. Volunteers from a small Amish congregation in Montana had just poured foundations for four of the first 11 homes, and volunteers from the Mennonite Disaster Service as well as Methodist and Presbyterian church groups would soon arrive to help with construction. For Anders and her colleagues — who had raised money for materials, dealt with county inspections, and frequently pitched in with their own muscle — the groundbreakings were a milestone.

The cavernous emergency distribution center in Pateros, which for months had been filled with clothing, baby equipment and other essentials, was almost empty. Distribution center organizer Cindy Cook reported that most people were stopping by to pick up tools, or large furniture and appliances for their rebuilt homes. Some wanted camping gear so that they could guard their new homes during construction. “People are starting to come in and say, ‘I got to take a shower in my own house!’ ” she said.

Memories of the fire, however, were still fresh: Cook and her husband, John, who live outside Brewster, near Mark Nelson, were trapped at home during the worst of the fire. Cook recalled watching her husband as he stood atop their woodpile, garden hose in hand, while 60 feet above his head, the fire-heated air roiled as if it were boiling in a pot. “We had put some things in the truck, thinking we would be able to evacuate,” she said. “But after I saw that, I thought, ‘This is about survival.’”

Though the Carlton Complex left a lot of bare hillsides, there is plenty of fuel still in the area, and given the dry winter, warm spring, and hot summer, the county could well see more severe fires soon. So as Anders and others nudge the recovery effort forward, they’re preparing for future disasters, too.

The county has implemented a reverse-911 system for evacuation alerts, and is encouraging more homeowners to not only build with fire-resistant materials but also clear brush and prune trees within a 200-foot “ignition zone” around their homes — steps which repeated studies have shown do more to protect individual houses than large-scale fire-suppression or fuel treatment efforts. (The Cooks had followed the national Firewise guidelines for landscaping and construction, which almost certainly made it possible for them to save their home.) The county conservation district has coordinated efforts to revegetate burned, mudslide-prone slopes.

Just as important as such concrete measures, Anders says, are the formal and informal networks built after the fire — within the county and without. “When we have to get a helicopter here, when we have to get the Red Cross here, we’ll know who to call, and we’ll be calling people we know intimately and personally,” Anders says. “That is really the key — having that spiderweb of contacts that you can access right away.”

Relationships at the most local level have changed, too. “You think you know your neighbors,” she says, “but you don’t know them until you’re sitting across the table from them and they’re telling you about the pictures that they lost, the insurance they didn’t have, all the things that are bothering them.

“We know each other like we’ve never known each other before — and I can tell you, these people will cover each other for decades. There is generational support in these relationships.”

The cultural contradiction at the heart of the rural West — stubborn individualism combined with a deeply ingrained expectation of government support — may have met its match in large, destructive fires like the Carlton Complex. While many in Okanogan County still treasure their independence, many now recognize the value of interdependence, among their communities and beyond county boundaries. And though questions linger about last summer’s state and federal firefighting efforts, there’s a growing sense that wildfires are no longer just someone else’s responsibility. Modern wildfires require more of everyone—not only of federal, state and local governments, but also of homeowners and neighborhoods.

Since 2009, the Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture have been developing a new wildland fire management strategy — usually referred to as the “Cohesive Strategy” — that emphasizes community preparation. “We’ve evolved from saying ‘We can get it done’ to recognizing that shared responsibility is absolutely critical,” says David Calkin, a Forest Service fire researcher. Community preparation not only protects homes but may also relieve persistent local and state pressure on the Forest Service to fight essentially untamable fires — which would, in turn, save money, reduce firefighter risk, and allow fires to finally regain their place in the ecosystem.

This summer, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., is preparing to introduce legislation that would, among other measures, build on the Cohesive Strategy by providing financial assistance to counties that protect existing houses and prioritize development in areas with lower fire risk. At the same time, Western governors, including Inslee, are calling on the Federal Emergency Management Agency to change its criteria for individual assistance so that wildfire victims are more likely to qualify for aid. (FEMA did fund repairs to public highways, bridges and other infrastructure damaged by the Carlton Complex, but rejected a request for funds to help individuals and families, in part because the fire affected relatively few people over an extremely large area.) Both Inslee and Cantwell support using money from FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund to fight very large wildfires, a reform intended to end the practice of emergency “fire borrowing” from the Forest Service’s fire prevention and forest health programs.

Behind each of these efforts is the same basic argument: Big, fierce wildfires will be with us for the foreseeable future, and reducing their human costs requires preparation and coordination — at every level.

Few in Okanogan County need convincing. “The kids at my day care are still playing fire,” Anders says. “Even if they were just 2 years old at the time, they know where they were. They’re playing games where they pack up their suitcases and go to the hotel because they’ve lost their home.” The adults are also on alert, she adds. “When we go to do a fire drill, by golly, it’s a fire drill. My employees want to know where the car seats are, where the keys are, where the backpacks of supplies are.”

On June 28 of this year, a grass fire on the northwestern edge of Wenatchee spread quickly into town, destroying 29 homes and severely damaging several businesses. Anders and other members of the Pateros Volunteer Fire Department worked through the night to try to save a fruit-packing plant and a warehouse belonging to an orchard-supply company, scaling ladders to break out windows and douse the buildings’ interiors with water. The weather was extremely hot and windy, just as it had been during the Carlton Complex, making every spark a threat. At one point, when Anders and a fellow firefighter stopped to rest, a two-inch-long ember landed on her companion’s rubber oxygen mask and started to melt it.

* * *

Mark Nelson spent the winter on his property outside Brewster. The weather was relatively mild, so his carport remained livable, and he more or less got used to the soot. Every day, he cut and split downed timber for firewood for as long as his back allowed, then switched to reading, though he found that the trauma of the fire had diminished his attention span. As the weather warmed, he slowly built a small porch on the end of his carport. He even went looking for a telephone pole that, on the night of the fire, had toppled toward and almost broken through the windshield of the fire truck that rescued him. He sawed up the pole and turned it into a replacement support for his neighborhood’s mailboxes. When I returned to visit Nelson in mid-May, his burned-out Voyager had sunk even more deeply into its meadow. But a carpet of green grass had grown on the valley floor, and Nelson was delighted. “Don’t you know what this means?” he said. “Every time I walk across it, it cleans my shoes. You have no idea how fun it is.”

The weeds were coming back, too, and there wasn’t as much native bitterroot as there had been before the fire. He hadn’t yet seen any mountain lion, bear or skunk tracks on his morning walks. But there were plenty of songbirds and plenty of quail, and many of the enormous poplars that once shaded his farmhouse had survived. A skinny ponderosa pine that he’d given up for dead had recently sprouted fresh needles.

Nelson didn’t plan to apply for one of the new houses being built by the recovery group. Other people needed them more, he grumbled, and he was pretty comfortable. “I think I’ll stay,” he said. He waved at the view from his porch, still stunningly expansive despite the lingering traces of soot. “I could never replace this.”


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About the Authors & Contributors

Michelle Nijhuis

Michelle Nijhuis

Michelle Nijhuis, a longtime contributing editor of High Country News, writes from White Salmon, Washington.