WILDFIRE IN THE AMERICAN WEST AND THE FAST TRACK TO OBLIVION

Greetings from the sixty mile Methow Valley, in North Central Washington, four hours North East from Seattle, over on the dry side of the North Cascade mountains, 45 miles from Canada in the Pacific North West where I live. Around 6000 people live here year round and I’ve been here almost eight years, and as an Englishman I am forever discovering parts of a whole catalogue of different priorities than those that I grew up with living in urban Northern England for the previous 45 years of my life. Living here on the border with the genuine wilderness is exhilarating and humbling, fascinating and sometimes outright frightening …

As I write this piece, in the summer of 2015, it is (unusually) dumping rain, the searing hundred degree temperatures of the last few days having broken somewhat and there is an ominous low rumble of thunder. In these dry climes and ever increasingly dry times in the American West, any rain is usually greeted with celebration, but in the warming world and summers marked by ever-lengthening and ever-more ferocious fire seasons the lightning strikes that accompany summer storms can be the harbingers of disaster.

And never more frightening than last summer when the biggest fire in WA state recorded history raged a mere 6 miles east of where I live. A miss, of course, is as good as a mile (or six), but bear in mind the firewall raced forty miles from north to south down the Methow Valley in a twenty four hour period. It was a matter of luck that the wind was blowing away from us, and lack of luck for those who were in the path of the firestorm. The fires grew to an area of 420 square miles in a week (contributing to the state total of 645 square miles … and 2014 became the most destructive and costly fire season on record for WA.

Carlton Fire Complex map

Carlton Fire Complex map (click to enlarge to see proximity to Twisp and Carlton)

Data in the wake of the thunderstorms on Monday July 14th 2014, recorded 2433 lightning strikes in a twelve hour period in North Eastern Washington which left our tragically under-funded local fire-crews and volunteers here in the Methow fighting four local fires. By Wednesday July 16th temperatures had soared to above 100 degrees and high winds had kicked in, which along with extremely low humidity, made it the perfect storm for the fire to rage out of control. And it did.

Ironically (or not, if you consider how our emergency services have been stripped back below the barest minimum, in the years since Ronald Reagan set the freight train of deregulation in motion, driven with equal glee by both Republican and Democrat successors ever since), I was singing that Wednesday night at a benefit at The Mazama Store for the Local Fire District 6 who were raising awareness and funds towards the construction of a new, and long overdue, fire station in the neighboring town of Winthrop WA. There were only a couple of volunteer fire fighters at the benefit as all the other crews were already out fighting the fires. As night was falling and I drove east and south along highway 20 to get back home to Twisp, the horizon of the foothills of the Cascade Mountains on the east side of the Methow River was already lit up Halloween orange where there were some visible flames a couple of miles distant. The fires were early in the season, but other than that I tried to convince myself that it was ‘normal,’ for an area that regularly gets wildfires.

The next day, Thursday July 17th the fire literally exploded, burning 123,000 acres (nearly half the final total) in a single day, merging four fires into the one huge ‘Carlton Complex Fire’ as it came to be known. Popular wisdom that fire only travels uphill was turned on its head, as the strong swirling winds pushed the flames every which way, in conditions where air-borne burning embers that fell on combustible materials had a 100 per cent chance of starting new fires … and ‘plumes’ (the true mark of a fire-storm) towered 5 miles high, like angry gods of old, spewing out burning fire-starters that might land a mile away across any point of the compass.

In the early evening of Thursday July 17th, I joined the 500 plus people crammed into the public meeting at Methow Valley Community Center in Twisp and we heard from weather analysts, fire fight coordinators, safety specialists, environmental scientists and fire behavior experts who were all pretty much saying the same thing that: A) they had never seen anything like this before, and B) there was nothing that could be really done to slow the fire, as the night-time temperatures were barely dipping, which meant until the temperature did drop the fire-fighters could not get the toe-hold needed for them to even dream about bringing the fires under control.

Walking outside the Community Center an hour later the flames were visible on the horizon a mile and a half to the east and it felt like the apocalypse had arrived early, with a couple of those ember spitting gigantine plumes dwarfing the town of Twisp where we stood. It looked like a couple of random atom bombs had gone off, mushroom clouds burgeoning towards the stratosphere heralding the last moments before the deluge of fall-out engulfed us.

Twin plumes over Twisp

Twin plumes over Twisp

The speed with which the fire moved took everyone by surprise, including the seasoned experts who had just told us how crazily beyond their experience this all was. As the fire raged unabated through that night it ripped the forty miles down the Valley to the town of Pateros where the Methow River butt-ends as it drains into the Columbia River. The inhabitants of Pateros got an eight-minute warning to evacuate their homes before the fire-storm slammed into their town taking out 32 houses. The relative massive expanse of the Columbia slack-water held back the fire somewhat from spreading further east but, sent firewalls spreading north and south on the western bank of the once mighty river.

Pateros in flames

Pateros in flames

The fire devoured the poles that carry the overhead power lines into the Methow Valley and everyone on the grid lost electrical power, with the instantaneous consequent loss of water for those whose domestic water supplies, and irrigation are powered by electricity from said grid. Savvy locals who use solar or who had, or in the days to come went out and bought petrol powered generators got some water back to save crops (which for a lot of people provides their livelihood during the summer months) or to divert irrigation lines into protecting their homes from fire. Our water went down with the power, but living less than fifty yards from the Twisp River we could at least bucket some water for essential needs and boil it up on the camping stove. The local radio KTRT the root, sprang back to life after a couple of days, with information updates, (if you had solar or battery operated radio that is, or happened to be driving.)  The digital world pretty much crashed, with access to the internet  mostly severed, and AT & T cell phones going down, whilst Verizon users fared better until the batteries in their cell phones died, but the old rinky dink land-lines, kept working, for those of us who still had them, enabling local calls only. And, two of only three exit roads from the Methow Valley were mostly closed in the days and weeks ahead.

Normal life pretty much ceased as everyone packed their essential belongings, into their cars and trucks in readiness for evacuation, orders which came with every micro-climatic shift in wind patterns in anticipation of where the fire might land next. And then some days the smoke levels were so bad it was considered seriously hazardous to be outdoors for any length of time. When the smoke shifted it was all systems go, weed-whacking, mowing, cutting the low limbs of trees and getting woodpiles and other combustibles away from the house, along with any other possible DIY prevention in case the fires did come our way. Numerous property were saved by such actions, and the deciding factors seemed to be whether there had been sufficient irrigation to keep a green belt around the house, and if the house had a metal rather than a highly flammable tar-based shingle roof.

Hank’s, the big store in Twisp stayed open powered by emergency generators installed after a burn caused a power-out of a few years previously) selling food and gasoline, and became something of a community meeting point and information exchange as many other businesses simply had to shut up shop. My world shrunk in rapid fashion, from the twenty five mile radius and beyond, in which I usually work, to the outlier of the town of Twisp, almost five miles away, and for the most part shrinking down even further to the neighbors and family who live within a couple of miles of me. In moments of respite, community became closer and micro local, and seeing people face to face became the main means of communication as most lines of technological communication had been rendered useless. There was even a woman who I had only met for the first time at the Fire District 6 benefit, who actually lived in my new reduced world, and who I magically bumped into for the next four days running, who it seemed, with the fire gods smiling on us, I could have fallen in love with …  and The Hootenanny I had planned at my house for Sunday July 20th went ahead, in an albeit modified form of a pot-luck for people in the five mile radius, who were all of us using up the food that was at the limits of defrosting from our now inert freezers.

A new fire, the Rising Eagle Fire in early August caused by a spark from the metal rim of a trailer wheel, where the tire had blown out, sent new waves of panic across the Valley and took down several homes, before the fire fighters could reign it in. The Carlton Complex Fire took weeks to bring under containment and the Valley remained on alert the whole summer.

Many who had friends or relatives they could stay with outside the Valley left, or often sent one caregiver with the children to get them out of harm’s way, whilst the other remained to try and save their house should the need arise. I had a long planned trip with my children booked to England, eight days into the fire. I really had not wanted to leave, but I know my children really did want to leave, so leave we did.

En route to Vancouver airport we stayed a night in a motel in Bellingham WA, with suitcases full of dirty washing, and took our first showers in a week and charged the dead batteries of our cell phones and computers. When we went out in search of a place to eat, I remember how alien-ly strange it felt to be wandering around the city where everything was simply calm and normal. When we got to England, being able to follow the news stories online, and sparse updates from friends who had managed to briefly get online, only made me want to be back there … back home. The fact that another fire had started some miles up beyond our house up the Twisp River Valley only made this feeling worse and made my deep seated fear, that we might not have a house to come back to, all the more pressing.

  The medical terminology for what pretty much everyone in the valley was feeling, was various states of heightened anxiety triggered by what is called the Autonomic Stress Response which is marked by the roller coaster ups and downs and the ever present claustrophobic churning knot in the gut. It affects people in different ways making some  want to go out and work with super human stamina to prevent what may be unpreventable, whilst others want to curl up in a ball and hide away. And sometimes both these ends of the spectrum affected the same individual at different times along the heightened stress continuum. This is stress as a survival mechanism, and something our hunter gatherer forbears on the African savannah first in the days of the dawn of man’s understanding and (relative) taming of fire. For the people on the front lines who lost their homes, and for those who fought through night and day to save their homes, unable to sleep, lest the fire come closer, the exhaustion of alert fatigue bordered on the traumatic stress that comes before the post traumatic stress.

The fires resulted in the loss of more than 300 homes; the devastation of the power grid leaving most people without electrical power for over a week, and for some as long as three weeks; 900 head of cattle were lost in the fires; $1.6 million damage was caused to fruit orchards by the fires: over a thousand miles of fencing was destroyed; and when further rainstorms came later in the summer the hitting of recently scorched areas of now bare earth, a whole new round of disasters ensued precipitated by flash-flooding and mudslides. Thousands of acres of pristine shrub steppe eco-systems got destroyed, with the countless loss of many of its wild-life inhabitants. Two individuals lost their lives, Robert Koczewski who died of a heart attack whilst helping defend his neighborhood from the fire, and Dan Gebbers who suffered a concussion in a fall when defending his family property from the fires, from which he never recovered.

Damage on road from Twisp to Pateros caused by flooding in wake of the fires

Damage on road from Twisp to Pateros caused by flooding in wake of the fires

The lower Twisp River escaped unscathed by direct contact from the fires, though I have never seen it so smoky in all my life the day we drove back into the Valley, after returning from England. By this time smoke had engulfed a whole chunk of the whole state, and dropping down from Washington Pass at five and a half thousand feet, from above the blanket of smoke, as East 20 winds its way into the Methow Valley we were simply swallowed up in the grey green haze which blocked out the sun.  A windstorm that happened whilst we were away, downing scores of trees around the Valley, had sent a huge maple branch crashing through my front room window with the result that the house was irradiated with this dense stale smoke, which took days to clear. It was of course nothing compared with what many people went through, but serves to illustrate that the extreme micro and macro weather events which come in globally warming world are with us and are getting worse.

Forty years of research into wild fire behavior in the American West shows a trendfor longer fire seasons, with larger fires, that burn more intensely. Climate Central’s analysis of 42 years of Forest service records entitled The Age of Western Wildfires (published 2012) documents this clear long term trend, detailing that over the every year for the past 10 years wildfires burned up twice the area they were burning 40 years ago, whilst the fire season is a full two and a half months (75 days) longer than it was in 1972. Projecting forwards, for every 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degree Fahrenheit) increase in temperatures, the size of the area burned by wildfires in the American west could easily quadruple.

And all of this has happened in lock-step over the same decades as the trend for progressively increasing and still growing  record use of fossil fuels; still increasing record levels of greenhouse gases being dumped into the atmosphere; along with still increasing record profits for big fossil fuel corporation. A forth correlation would be the growing transfer of public wealth to private corporations that has been (and remains) Disaster Capitalism’s modus operandi for most of the last four decades since the western cowboy president put deregulation on the Fast Track, that is: the butchering and selling off the state safety net at the top of the cliff in favor of the privatized ambulance at the bottom (and even then you only get in the ambulance if you have sufficient private insurance).

The fires will be back, maybe not this year, but one of these years they will be back with more ferocity than the Carlton Complex Fire and whilst we will have more community know-how (mostly in the form of DIY prevention) to resist them, we will have less actual federal and state resources to fight the fires on the ground. The men and women who fought the fires on the ground in the Methow Valley in 2014 achieved miracles and deserve our utmost respect. And, the inevitable questions in the post-mortem on those fires, of whether the fire could have been stopped earlier? or could such and such a property have been saved?  have to be asked in the context of a world where these public resources have been stripped back to the core, and where the corporate mantra to workers of “do more with less, and for less pay,” infects everything it touches.

Symptomatic of the corporate take-over of the world economy, is the fact that little has changed in fire prevention and fire-fighting capability here in the Methow Valley since last year. On perennially stretched budgets —as Solveig Torvik succinctly put it in the Methow Valley News recently — “Forest Service and other agencies are bankrupting their operating budgets fighting catastrophic fires. Funds desperately needed for reducing fuels to avoid cataclysmic fires are instead spent fighting cataclysmic fires. Duh, people. Hello?”

FEMA contributed $11.7 million (of a total cost of $69.4 million) towards the fire suppression costs. They repeatedly refused emergency aid for infrastructure reconstruction, future fire prevention, and aid to those made homeless by the fires (and the uninsured losses amounted to 44% of the total). The sick twisted logic in the wake of disasters like this, is that the private corporate sector provides the best solutions for reconstruction,  where government basically transfers public money into private hands, sub-contracting with nil oversight on whether the corporations deliver solutions that meets the needs of the people on the ground. That is, if in fact they deliver any kind of  solution at all, and don’t simply siphon off the money and run leaving the locale in a worse situation than when they arrived. (Exhibit A. Iraq 2003-to present).

Bringing us back to the here and now and regarding the bigger picture, it is with some disgust  I learn — despite my letters of protestation— that both of Washington State’s Senators, Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, both Democrats, both voted in favor of Fast Track in June 2015. Cantwell and Murray of course were placating the corporate lobby that funds their electoral campaigns, notably Boeing of Seattle, —who would continue to profit obscenely with the TPP (Trans Pacific Partnership) in place, not least from their role in manufacturing more of the kinds of jet fighter planes that regularly fly over my house on training exercises, the cost of a single such plane being in the region of $300 million, a princely sum which could actually buy at least 75 new fire stations for Winthrop— than actually paying any attention whatsoever to the real long term needs of their constituents

WA senators Cantwell (left) and Murray (right) enjoined in corporate cheer at a rally at Boeing in Seattle

WA senators Cantwell (left) and Murray (right) enjoined in corporate cheer at a rally at Boeing in Seattle

Fast Track postures as a hard fought policy to enable the smooth running trickle of the trickle down, so that we-the-people get our fair share of Capitalism’s bounty. For most of us the actual measure of trickle down amounts to taking turns to lick the microbes off of the salt, that is left in the bottom of the bag from the peanuts that we never actually see. In fact Fast Track is only the latest chapter in the book of ploys to remove obstacles to deregulation, in this case to ensure the smooth passage of the TPP and its bastard offspring cousin TISA Trade in Service Agreement).

The TPP would in short shrift expand the ability of corporations to sue foreign governments over ‘lost profits,’ enshrining yet further the Investor-State Dispute Resolution of previous trade agreements, whereby, as Elizabeth Warren puts it: “highly paid corporate lawyers … go back and forth between representing corporations one day and sitting in judgment (of disputes) the next.” Thus a French company sued Egypt after Egypt raised its minimum wage; a Swedish company filed a complaint against Germany because Germany wanted to phase out nuclear power; a Dutch company sued the Czech Republic for not bailing out a bank it partially owned; and Philip Morris is suing countries wherever it can for attempting to reduce smoking rates. This insanity is only the start.

For the Pacific North West the TPP would provide the framework for corporations to sue First Nations: the Lummi Nation in WA state for protesting the proposed coal export terminal at Cherry Point; the Salish people at for objecting to oil trains traveling across the Swinomish reservation; and whoever stands in the way of the of exporting Liquefied Natural Gas to Japan.

The most recent IPPC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report states that at least 90% of the planet’s coal, oil and gas has to stay in the ground if our children and grandchildren are to inherit a world in which they can survive. The TPP would enable huge swathes of the Pacific North West coast line to be turned into industrial wastelands; resulting in the poisoning of water tables at source of extraction; and condemning North Central Washington to fry along with much of the rest of the American West in the rapid acceleration of game-over for human habitability of the planet. Thanks a lot Cantwell and Murray and shame on you.

These trade’ agreements are basically licenses for corporations to rip and burn what is left of the world’s natural resources, whilst eating away at every last sector of public service from safety to the environment, in every country, in the knowledge that said corporations have at least a forty year record of not actually giving a fuck about safety or the environment. These trade agreements are licenses for Exxon Mobil to have an oil pipeline spill in your backyard and then for them to spend fifteen years dragging it through the courts so you never see a cent in compensation. They are license for Wal-Mart to come to town and concrete over the ground where you once grew food, so that they can sell you zucchinis grown with water drilled from the California aquifer, that is not being replenished, and which is making CA the tinderbox that it is. These ‘trade’ agreements are stealth bombers specifically designed to blast local economies back to the stone age, precisely because the biggest existential threat to corporations’ ability to make obscene profit is locally organized people who are invested in the place they live, generating locally sourced sustainable power and growing their own food locally, without depleting the water table or poisoning the river that runs  through the village … precisely because a locally functioning economy effectively renders the corporate ‘middle man’ obsolete.

In the pub in August of 2014 a friend told of how one of the fire-fighters at his place reiterated the fact that none of the fire crews had ever seen a fire like this before, but with the qualification that they had never seen a community like this one, that came together so well to respond to the catastrophe. A guy sat further down the bar added that being here during the Carlton Complex Fire renewed his faith in humanity, having previously lived in Florida when one of the hurricanes hit, where he was traumatized by the fact it was ‘every man for himself’ as his neighbors, tooled up with automatic weapons to deter looters. So perhaps in a valley which resisted the Vail Village Ski Corporation’s plan to build a major ski hill and condo cabins for 30,000 tourists in the 1980-1990’s, and has made Wal-Mart not even dream of acting on the desire to set up shop here, we do have something going for us.

The writing is on the Wal-Mart

The writing is on the Wal-Mart

Back in 2015 the thunder and lightning has stopped, but ‘extreme heat and drought conditions’  mean an emergency proclamation is in place across all 39 counties in WA state. According to inciweb, the government incident information web-site,  there are currently 11 active wildfires in the state, including the Sleepy Hollow fire which destroyed 29 properties in the north-western area of the city of Wenatchee.

It is a long ways to go until the reduced fire risks of October. Meanwhile I am going to the pub, where these days talk about the weather segues into to talk about the coming of the next micro apocalypse here in the Methow Valley, spurring brainstorms of locally inventive ways of how we might dismantle the suicide bomb of fossil fuel which will, if we allow the insanity to persist, continue to designate much of the American West for corporate slash and burn.

 

* kudos and thanks to the Methow Valley News for fire data and statistics.

About Danbert Nobacon

Danbert Nobacon freak music legend got an associate degree in the science of children’s play in the 1990’s whilst moonlighting in the punk rock band Chumbawamba. He is currently teaching theatre in his local Junior High and High School. And, he is presently finishing his first album in seven years, entitled "Stardust to Darwinstuff" musically embodying some of the above themes, from which the first track— "Revolution 9.01"— will surface on the eve of the inauguration in January 2017.
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1 Response to WILDFIRE IN THE AMERICAN WEST AND THE FAST TRACK TO OBLIVION

  1. The photo (by Micheal Stanford) which I have learned was of US route 2 in Tumwater Canyon near Leavenworth has been taken down because it no longer pertains to the locales described in the essay. It came to me in good faith (uncredited) and labelled as Hwy 153 between Twisp and Pateros and it does look very similar to some of the stretches on that road. Apologies for my error. It is not my intention to mislead or deny credit where it is due, I was simply trying to illustrate the writing with a spectacular picture.
    Unfortunately in the digital age much art is circulated without permission and without due credit, and I know this is notoriously true for photographers in the era of google images. I intimately understand and share that position, as a working musician whose works are often copied and distributed for free, without my permission, against copyright and often uncredited (e.g. the number of radio shows who tell the listener the names of the songs and the artists playing them, are sadly few and far between these days).
    Sometimes we have to accept the duality of this and take heart that our work is simply out there being art, rather than as a poster for who created, whilst doing what we can to remedy the glitches …

    thanks
    danbert nobacon

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