Nick Hilden pitched us a story on the growing wildfire threat in the West and how it’s disrupting travel plans, straining local business who depend on summer tourism, and upending long-held family traditions. Guess what happened next.
My plans for this story were disrupted by wildfires, of course.
There was a time when wildfires were considered a sporadic nuisance, but now the residents of the Methow Valley expect and fear their coming each summer, and know that the devastating imposition of fire will only continue to grow. I had interviews arranged with several local community members, but they all had to cancel. Right now, they’re too busy evacuating their horses, packing valuables and family heirlooms, and preparing themselves for the possibility — and, increasingly, a certainty — that they will lose everything.
The Methow Valley sits on the starboard shoulder of the Cascade Mountains in Washington, marking the place where — in the summer — the lush greens typically associated with the state give way to the dry browns of the high desert. The community is made up of three towns that sit along Highway 20: Mazama, Winthrop, and Twisp. Of this triad Winthrop is the most popular, known for its Old Western facades and wooden sidewalks and general bustle of tourism.
I’ve been visiting Winthrop my whole life. My family has been camping at a meadow near Falls Creek 11 miles north of town along the Chewuck River for nearly half a century, beginning a decade before I was born. When I was a young man, I spent summers living in a tent in the meadow and bartending in town. My father’s ashes are scattered there, and now the latest iteration of our family has begun making memories there.
There’s a trail that runs up Falls Creek past several tiers of waterfall, the second of which has been a favorite swimming hole among my cousins and I ever since we were very young. When I used to spend summers in the meadow, I would hike up to this pool to shower in the falls and bathe in its icy glacial runoff. We know it so well that any change is obvious. Recently we saw that a tree had settled across its span some thirty feet above its surface, and we discussed with my nephew how someday when it and he had grown a bit he could attach a rope-swing to it. In that moment, it wasn’t hard to imagine his children playing on that theoretical swing, and maybe even their children after that.
This is our place, our legacy, and we are fiercely protective of it. But a threat looms.
The signs that they — the meadow, Winthrop, and the Methow in general — were in danger crept in slowly. When I was a boy, the burn ban never went into effect until August, if at all. But each year was hotter than the last — each summer drier — and by the turn of the millennium it was no longer quite the same experience. Today, campfires are virtually a thing of the past. If you hope to roast s’mores or gather around a campfire’s warming glow, you’d better go to the Methow before the second half of June.
My family’s most recent visit — which inaugurated a longer trip I would be taking down the coast — was in early July this year, already several weeks into the burn ban. This time there were about a dozen of us, small numbers by our family standards. My brother couldn’t make it. He was off fighting wildfires somewhere in Southern California, a job that began many years ago as a part-time volunteer gig but was by now a beyond-full time role that demanded his attention all summer long.
“Cousin,” I said, pressing the gas to the floor, “we might have just made a terrible mistake.”
Our family filled the days with hiking and swimming in waterfalls and relaxing by the river. Occasionally we went to town for essential supplies like ice cream from Sheri’s Sweet Shop or drinks at Three Fingered Jack’s Saloon. On one such visit, we found that the community park had been taken over by fire trucks with their ladders aloft and decorated with streamers — a memorial for a firefighter who had died. I couldn’t help but wonder after my brother, and selfishly wish that he was there with us drinking by the river rather than risking his life amidst the flames.
After a week our stay came to an end. I’d driven to the valley with my cousin Spencer, and we were the first to leave.
When we emerged onto Highway 20, we saw a great billow of dark smoke coming from somewhere up the road. While getting gas in Mazama, I was told by a visibly nervous cashier that the fire was just up the hill at Cedar Creek and that everyone was worried. Word was the highway could be closed at any moment. Spencer and I decided to tear ass over the mountains and get out while we could.
As we blew past a roadblock that was in the early stages of implementation, I stared nervously up at the angry-looking plume that poured from the forest off to our left. We were the only vehicle on the usually busy highway.
“Cousin,” I said, pressing the gas to the floor, “we might have just made a terrible mistake.”
I really began to sweat — and not from the heat — once we were in the fire’s shadow. The world around us was cloaked in a murky umber, as if we were driving into Dante’s nightmare. Off to the left we could see the flames stabbing out from the treetops in angry flickers. For a few long moments I had serious questions about my judgement, but then we passed out of the shadow and were clear.
That was six weeks ago, and the fire is still going. In fact, the situation became much worse when the first fire was joined by a second that leaped up just north of Winthrop. Evacuation orders were organized. The highway was closed indefinitely, choking off the region’s much-needed flow of tourist dollars. Speaking of choking, the possibility of tourism was killed off entirely by a thick haze of toxic smoke that settled into the valley. Now, even while these first summer fires are sputtering down, a new one has erupted an hour or so east that threatens the tiny fishing town of Conconully—another place that is dear to my family.
According to the news, northern California is riddled with fires. Of course it is. It’s summer in the West, and this is just a fact of life now.
For Winthrop and the wider Methow Valley, this was the second ruined summer in a row—first the pandemic, now the fires. And while it’s uncertain how the former will shake out (it’s certainly not going as well as we all hoped), the impact of the latter is only going to worsen. As if the wildfires that we’re seeing with our own eyes weren’t evidence enough, these particular fires happened to correspond with the release of the IPCC’s latest report on climate change. Suffice to say that the news isn’t good, with this prestigious scientific body declaring, “In high-latitude regions, warming is projected to increase disturbance in boreal forests, including drought, wildfire, and pest outbreaks (high confidence).” I find their use of italics on “high confidence” especially disturbing.
For those in the Methow Valley — and indeed much of the rest of the West — the future looks to be aflame.
As I write this I’m camped out just south of Crater Lake, and the air is choked with smoke. Last night I was camping a few hundred miles to the north where I fell asleep beneath a clear sky, but by the time I awoke in the morning it was thick with ashy haze. I drove for hours trying to escape it, but it seemed to be everywhere. It had been the same a week ago along the Columbia River Gorge — smoke so dense and pervasive that visibility dropped to a couple hundred yards.
I had planned on journeying through the Cascade Mountains of central Washington and Oregon, then down on through northern California, but it increasingly appears that those plans have been smoked — or in some cases burned — out. According to the news, northern California is riddled with fires. Of course it is. It’s summer in the West, and this is just a fact of life now.
I’m not sure how smoky it will be or if I’ll be able to reach my destination at all. Judging by what I’ve seen — not only now but over decades of watching the temperature rise, the landscape increasingly turn into tinder, and the wildfires burn up more and more each year — this is only the beginning.
Ironically, my earliest memory of the meadow in the Methow — from when I was about six — is of a particular instance when fire seemed elusive. My brother and I had been told to gather firewood, but we claimed that there was none to be found. Dad snorted and said something to the effect of, “When it’s dark and cold you’ll realize that there was plenty of wood around the whole time.”
He was right. Once the sun had set and fire had grown more appealing, it seemed as if there was firewood everywhere we cast the beams of our flashlights. As we darted around collecting sticks by the armful, the now-raging campfire rose, bats swooped low overhead and the sky broke open and out poured the Milky Way. My father sat by the fire and watched us race about at our task, his eyes glimmering from the light of the flames, a satisfied smile on his lips.
I learned some obscure lesson that night I couldn’t conjure into words then, and it remains vague even now. Something about what can be accomplished if we only try. Something about how we only act once the sun has set and night has come. Something about putting in the work before our backs are against the wall. Something about acting before it’s too late.
Nearly twenty years later, I reflected on that night as we poured dad’s ashes into a calm eddy just downstream from the first of the Falls Creek waterfalls. Are we doomed to only recognize a problem once it is too late?
I don’t have any answers, at least none that will solve the problems at hand. It might be too late as it is. Maybe now we’re just scattering ashes in the stream.
What I do know is that the meadow burned in the most recent blaze. My brother’s fire crew was stationed somewhere else — awaiting another fire, of course — and he messaged me saying that he wished he could go fight for it; for our family’s memories. I didn’t realize that one could transmit such despair via text message.
I also know that next year when I visit, while the scars from the fire will remain, there will already be regrowth. That won’t mean the danger has passed, but when spring comes, the shoots that grow through the char and ash will bloom hope.
But who knows? Maybe — probably — the fires will return. My plans may have to change again. My family and I, however, will try. Beautiful places are increasingly hard to find.
Top photo: Rupert Ganzer (CC-BY-NC-SA)