My role as a commissioner for the Lopez Island Hospital District brought me to Lake Chelan, WA for a conference for the next few days. The remote village of Stehekin, the setting for my memoir, Hiking Naked, sits at the other end of the lake. Last night’s rain, thunder, and lightning brought back memories of the wildfire in Stehekin the first summer we lived there. As far as I know, this storm didn’t ignite any fires, but it reminded me of its hazards and the lessons I learned when fire blazed near us for months in 1994.
Here’s an excerpt.
Chapter 9 – Wildfire Season
Smoke rolled into the Stehekin Valley like an ocean fog, blanketing us in wintry gray. But this was July, barely one month after our move, and the haze oozing into our new home was from wildfires, not the Puget Sound marine air we were accustomed to.
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. Someone came from nearly every Stehekin household to the Golden West Visitor Center. People scooted their chairs over worn, hardwood floors for a better view of the National Forest Service map propped on an easel. Two thumbtack-sized black circles marked fires at nearby Rainbow Ridge and Little Boulder. A banana-shaped mark stretched over Purple Mountain. Butte Creek was blackened, too.
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 the four darkened areas on the 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, the same amount airlines allowed then for checked luggage. 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.”
At home after the meeting, I looked around the log cabin’s large open bedroom our family shared. Some of our treasured possessions were in storage, but many were in that room—worn baby blankets Rachel and Matt still snuggled under at night, boxes of photos I planned to organize into albums, the flute I’d owned since third grade, and a quilt we’d received as a wedding gift. I imagined the pages of our already bulging family journal curled and charred. I set out the four biggest duffel bags I could find.
Not wanting to alarm the kids, Jerry and I emphasized Alan’s reassurance that evacuation was unlikely. “Just pack like you’re going to Grandma’s for a weekend,” Jerry said as he supervised Rachel and Matt loading their bags.
As I sorted, I ticked off treasures that would put us over the weight limit—our broken-in hiking boots, cross-country skis, my yellow bicycle with the Minnie Mouse bell, and the Kitchen Aid mixer. Would they be there when we returned from evacuation? My stomach tightened over nature’s threat to our idyllic retreat. I knew I had lessons to learn in the wilderness, but I hadn’t anticipated this exercise in condensing my family’s life into four bags.
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 afternoon arrival of Mike Monahan, a national fire commander from Utah, signaled this wasn’t “just another fire.” At the Golden West that night, the worried-looking, red-haired official outlined for the local crowd the challenge of preventing the small fires nearby from combining into one large one.
At the end of my [bakery] 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.
Some days over the next few weeks, the smoke cleared to reveal blue skies. Two sets of friends visited, the kids rode their bikes to the landing to swim, Jerry shuttled a few tourists between the Ranch and the bakery, and the mail and groceries arrived on The Lady.
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 and re-packed boxes to move into the house we’d rent from the Barnharts through the school year. Mike Monahan moved on to manage a different fire. 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.