Smoke from wildfires throughout the western U.S. and Canada has curtained my community for nearly two weeks. We know what to do with the gray in this marine climate, but air that constantly smells like campfires and vistas engulfed in haze leave us off-kilter. And coughing. Though there’s a visual beauty to the smoke’s effect on the atmosphere, I know from personal experience the terror of wildfires for people working and living in their midst, as well as for those fighting the blazes.
The first summer my family and I spent in Stehekin, WA during our two-year sojourn there, fire surrounded the community. With the exception of a few days, wildfire smoke permeated every pristine inch of the valley nestled in the North Cascades all season. A recent photo from my friend and fellow writer, Ana Maria Spagna, shows a repeat of what we experienced in 1994. Thankfully, fires creating this smoke don’t threaten Stehekin, but they’ve become the summertime norm in recent years.
I learned in Stehekin just how complex fire prevention and management are. And there’s no doubt in my mind that our changing climate further complicates actions to protect homes and businesses, wildlife and people, air quality, and fragile ecosystems.
We were safe from harm in 1994, and we’re safe now, but my distress about fire devastation remains. My thoughts have returned often to wildfire season in Stehekin, and I’ve included an excerpt from my memoir that describes it.
Excerpt from Hiking Naked – A Quaker Woman’s Search for Balance, Chapter 9, “Wildfire Season”
Wildfire season arrived in the North Cascades after a two-week run of rainless, one-hundred-degree days and lightning strikes in the nearby Okanogan National Forest. The blazes dropped a thick, dingy curtain on the shoreline, but despite the haze and smoldering campfire smell, the Lady of the Lake kept sailing. Her crew brought news that a crack of lightning can change lives—ski slopes in Leavenworth in blazes, and three hundred people evacuated from the town of Chelan.
The thunder and lightning storms of my Midwest upbringing must have immunized me from fear when lightning cracked in ridges above the Stehekin Valley, because I wasn’t aware that we in Stehekin were in danger until a community meeting on July 29.
This was our first meeting with Alan Hoffmeister, one of the many specialists from the National Park Service who would come to Stehekin to try to outmaneuver the fires. Alan looked over the faces in the crowd, his index finger steadily pointing to four darkened areas on a map. “Although the fires are several miles away,” he said, “they’ve already encompassed a thousand acres and are burning erratically.”
He predicted pines and firs, parched from diminished snow melt and eight years of drought, might burst into flame and roll down dehydrated ridges, spreading the firestorm into the Boulder Creek drainage area just a mile northwest of us. “If necessary, fire crews and equipment will be brought to Stehekin by boat or air. We’re doing everything possible to stop the fires.”
Then Alan suggested that, even though evacuation was unlikely, we should begin thinking about it. Nervous laughter floated through the cramped room as he encouraged us each to pack a single bag weighing no more than seventy-five pounds. I searched the faces of the long-time Stehekinites in the crowd, trying to read their expressions. Were they worried? Scared?
“These fires are more fierce than at any time ever in this region,” Alan said. “You might have as little as fifteen minutes to catch a boat to leave. Don’t wait for an evacuation notice to pack.”
That night, images of a cyclone of fire intruded into my sleep. Every sound in the dark mimicked the crackle and hiss that I imagined echoing through the forest. Jerry snored softly beside me, and I could hear the kids rustling in their beds. What a fool I’d been to expose our family to these dangers. During our years of visiting Stehekin, I’d learned that the potential for natural disasters is part of everyday life here. Nearly everyone had stories of floods, fires, avalanches, and backcountry accidents that had destroyed property and claimed friends and family. Firs scorched by lightning marked the cycles of their lives. Now I was experiencing this reality first-hand, faced with a situation I couldn’t control. I tried to loosen my grip with deep breathing and prayers.
Sleep finally came, and a gentle wind during the night sent the smoke another direction. The next day’s clear dawn made it easy to forget the force devouring forests just a few miles away. The respite was brief. Within hours, neon-yellow fliers describing the “Stehekin Evacuation Contingency Plan” blanketed the valley. National Park Service rangers had hand-delivered the bulletins; with no phones, and no television or radio transmission, the pony express-like system was the only way to get the word out.
The next day at work, trying to convince myself that I could handle life in the wilderness, I tried to imitate my bakery co-workers’ casual attitudes. At the end of my shift, I retreated to a public dock to watch a red-and-white Sikorsky Sky Crane, a military-style helicopter, pull water from the lake. A bucket, swinging on a rope from the chopper’s belly, hauled up two thousand gallons of water with each dip. All afternoon it showered me as water slopped on its way to the flames on the peaks above. The rhythmic whirl of rotors was both unsettling and comforting.
The report at that night’s community meeting was as feared; fire had advanced to Boulder Creek, just a couple miles from where we sat on the valley floor. That inferno demanded two helicopters, eight hours a day, to cool it down enough so fire crews could get up there. After a few days of water drops, [the incident commander] told us the fire at Boulder Creek was too widespread and hot for crews to extinguish.
“It won’t go out completely until snow falls,” he said.
Some days over the next few weeks, the smoke cleared to reveal blue skies. Other days, we’d hear the helicopters again, smoke would fill the valley again, and my fear—that this place and way of life would be destroyed—returned.
Rains in late August weakened the fire’s strength. We unpacked our evacuation bags. Another Incident Commander directed mop-up efforts, and local Park Service employees handled flare-ups that waxed and waned all through September. By the first week of October, the fire-fighting teams rolled up the hoses and barged them out, along with their shovels, axes, tents, and trucks. After weeks of being prepared for fire on our doorsteps, these tools of protection disappeared, leaving in their place a deeper understanding: no matter how hard I worked, I couldn’t eliminate all the threats to life any more than Mike Monahan could end the fire at Boulder Creek.
I awakened one morning in mid-October to a white glisten on McGregor Mountain, just visible through the living room window. Fortunately, the season’s first snow had come early; the tension in my neck eased with this proof that the fires were over—at least for this year.