Wildfire Season

 

sailboat smoke.jpg
Lopez Island, WA ferry landing, August 2018

 

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.

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Stehekin Landing, August 2018

 

 

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.

hn coverExcerpt 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.

ste fire (1)
Sikorsky Sky Crane in Stehekin, 1994

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.

orcas fire
Smoke-filtered sun at Orcas Island ferry landing August 2018

 

7 Thoughts on Power

Baking_pancakes
Photo courtesy of cogdogblog

Last Friday, one of the busiest days of the summer tourist season, we set aside the morning for a pancake breakfast with our son, daughter-in-law, and 7-month-old granddaughter. They were visiting from Chicago, and we awaited fresh pancakes my husband flipped in the cast iron skillet.

Until the rumble of the exhaust fan and the hum of the refrigerator stopped.

We knew that this sudden silence signaled a power outage. While the pancakes sizzled in the still-warm skillet (one advantage of an electric stove), our chef went upstairs for a quick check on news from Orcas Power and Light Cooperative (OPALCO) before the computer and modem back-up battery died.

The report wasn’t good: a car plowed into an electric pole, and we should anticipate a long outage. I downloaded documents to my (fully-charged) laptop.

I found it hard to concentrate that morning, recognizing I wouldn’t be able to finish a blog post, anticipating a disrupted afternoon working at Lopez Bookshop, wondering if we’d have power in time to bake the casserole our daughter had prepared for that night’s dinner, and fretting about the driver’s condition. A good response for me at such times is to take a walk with dog.

Everything seemed quieter that morning, even though ferries were still sailing, and bicyclists cruised by. One neighbor lounging outside had heard that the power disruption caused the cancellation of that day’s scheduled blood drive, and it might take six hours to repair the lines brought down by the car crash.

Electrical-Outlet-8830cIt’s not unusual to lose electricity on this small, rural island, but it’s not anywhere as common as it was when we lived in Stehekin, WA. My ease with “losing power” has faded some since I wrote of the lessons I learned about control in Stehekin. Reflections on power—both literal and metaphorical—accompanied me as I walked the quiet Lopez road. Here are 7 musings from that day:

  1. Regaining Power—I trust the electricity will be restored. But having, losing, and regaining personal power is not so certain.
  2. Electricity and Power—We often refer to the energy source that lights our homes and businesses, runs our devices, and now, fuels cars, as “power.” And it’s true electricity is a force that dominates our lives, at least in many parts of the world. It also contributes to people’s success—and usually diminishes prosperity when it’s absent.
  3. Backup Systems—Even in my small community, we’ve become so reliant on equipment, communication systems, and electronic transactions that we struggle when they’re out of commission. We want, and in some cases need, alternatives to keep disruptions to a minimum. The thought of taking a day/hour/half-hour off is distressing for many.
  4. Power for Life-supporting Measures—From thoughts about backup systems, my mind reflected about the terror of an outage for people who rely on electric-powered equipment for life-supporting oxygen, medication, and monitors.
  5. The Driver—My neighbor also reported he’d seen a medical evacuation helicopter flying toward the village where the clinic is, and then minutes later, heading toward the north, likely to a hospital in Bellingham. What happened to that person? What caused the crash?
  6. OPALCO Crew—I know a number of the local lineworkers, including a high school classmate of my son and daughter. Over the years, several crewmembers have been seriously injured on the job. I feel deep gratitude for their skill and courage to respond, often in hazardous weather, when lights flicker and machines shut down. I learned later that the broken utility pole had crashed across the road and started a
    08-17-2018-fire
    photo by “San Juan Islander” newspaper

    grass fire at a neighboring farm. Lopez Fire and EMS crews receive my gratitude, too—they kept the fire from burning out of control.

  7. Privilege and Power—All of these musings ultimately led me to the link between privilege and power. Whether it’s electrical or personal, literal or metaphorical, power is a privilege. Just consider Puerto Rico, when Hurricane Maria knocked out electricity to the entire U.S. territory in September 2017. Nearly a year later, some residents still have no lights. And clearly, they lacked power to receive an effective emergency response from the U.S.

By the end of my walk, I had renewed awareness of how lucky-blessed-privileged-humbled I am to have power.

Blender-Juice
repairwrinkles.com

This morning, as I was just about to push the “liquefy” button on my blender filled with green smoothie ingredients, the kitchen again went quiet. I still don’t know why, but I “lost power” for less than 10 minutes. I guess the number 7 (reflections) wasn’t so lucky, or perhaps I just needed more reflection time.

 

 

 

Biking Naked (Not)

It had been a long time since I’d let out a “Woohoo!” while riding a bike. But fifteen years ago, that’s the word that escaped the first time a friend’s electric bike gently boosted my pedaling up my gravel lane. Ever since then, I’ve been breezing through headwinds and up hills on my own electric hybrid bicycle, inhaling the sweet smell of lilacs and manure as I sail past grazing sheep and cows on my way to town. Although Lopez is known as “the flat island” and “the biking island,” it still has plenty of hills to tax my aging knees and lower back.

My first e-bike, an artic blue Merida Powercycle, had a 24-volt lead-acid battery pack. That kind of power meant the energy most people expend to walk briskly will propel a bicycle 13 miles per hour on level ground. And with such a crank-drive bike, you only need moderate pedaling to get up hills that even a serious cyclist might push a standard bike up. Or, as a friend who recently received an electric bike for her birthday says, “It’s like having an angel at your back pushing you up a hill.”

Izip
My IZIP, Penny, loaded with groceries

A few years ago, after many miles of riding—and replacing two batteries—I decided to upgrade to an IZIP Trekking electric bike. This pedal-assist model is powered by a 24-volt Lithium-ion battery integrated in the copper-penny frame with its specifically-designed down tube. The IZIP a bit lighter weight than the Merida, and it gives me that same angelic nudge when the road upslopes. Sorry, IZIP no longer makes the Trekking version, but their newer models offer the latest advances in e-bike technology.

And no, I don’t bike naked.

But I do feel some of that metaphoric exposure I describe in my memoir, Hiking Naked: A Quaker Woman’s Search for Balance. For one, I’m free of the steel shell of my Subaru that blocks the scent of Nootka roses, temperatures that warm or cool my skin, and the brush of wind on nose and lips. Even when rain dots my glasses, I relish the tactile encounter with the elements. More importantly, though, my pedaling and panting stimulate thoughts and ideas. Sometimes the bike leads me through uncertainties and questions that perplex; other times, the combination of exertion and sensory input opens me to insights, clarity, and calm.

bike sticker.jpg
Penny’s down tube holds the battery – and wise words

I could use some of that inspiration when a bystander shouts as I pedal past, “Hey, that’s cheating!”

I’m searching for a quick comeback like the one I’ve developed in response to questions I frequently hear when talking about my book:

“Did you really hike naked?” My husband did.

“Isn’t that painful?” He says it’s not.

“Are there pictures?” No (but there’s one in this post).

My simple reply is, “It’s MOSTLY a metaphor.”

hn (1)

 

As far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing dishonest about that “angel” at my back when I turn into a headwind or approach an incline. As I sail past the snarky commenter, I’d like to smile and let my jet stream hold a few words that set the record straight.

How would you respond? Any suggestions are welcome.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wildfire Season

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.

Hiking Naked Final CoverHere’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.

 

fire41
A fire covering about 1,200 acres near Leavenworth forced a closure of U.S. 2 and created a massive smoke plume visible from Seattle and Tacoma. (Photo: KCPQ-TV)

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.

sky crane

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.

mcgregor_mountain
Photo courtesy summitpost.org