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Bewildering Stories

In the Fire Zone

by Danielle L. Parker

Drought and wildfires have been devastating forests from California to the Canadian Arctic. Our Reviews Editor, Danielle L. Parker, sends a “front-line” report from her home in northern Washington state.

Please keep in mind that everything seems to happen at once in a catastrophe. It’s the reaction to it that counts.

The cell tower in Omak burned down and was brought back on line only last night. We’re all packed up to evacuate. New fires have broken out all over. All of Ferry County is on smoke or voluntary evacation levels now.

Last night, the sheriff told Dad we had to go, but they looked at the map a while and decided we were still in the voluntary evacation area. We stayed. The fire was estimated to be about five miles away.

We were having falling ash and bad smoke again. The dogs are upset. Pepper sticks to me like glue, and Dundee is wild and hyper. My poor dad, who is very settled, was digging out a stump yesterday morning, trying to pretend nothing was happening. I had to haul him back to reality and get him to get his musical instruments and guns ready to go. He is trying to take it stoically, but I feel very bad for him.

This morning was very still. The smoke cleared a bit. We don’t know how it will go. I’ve had it, though. Yesterday, we hooked up the utility trailer; I’m taking my best stuff to storage in Spokane. I just may not bring it back up again, afterwards.

Merely getting to Spokane is a challenge: three of the four routes out of here are already blocked by active fires. There is only route clear right now.

fire warning status

In the Omak area, three firefighters died. A lot of homes were burned. And I’ve heard Tonasket, north of Omak, is being evacuated. The next big town is the Ferry county seat, Republic.

The temporary Red Cross shelter in town — the one we would have to go to — is already filled up, and local churches are offering space. What good it will do now that Republic is already filled with smoke, I don’t know. Some friends offered us their place to stay, but now they, too, are looking at moving into a church shelter soon.

Yesterday, we were told by the Fire Department to get ready to go. We spent the day rushing around while the wind switched back and forth. The Fire Department said the winds are so unpredictable that the air might get so smoky you could barely see the road.

But a miracle happened. The fire was south of us in the morning, burned east, and then headed north. It got very smoky, and I was packing a suitcase. Apparently the fire burned behind and past us. The people on Long Alec Creek Road had to evacuate last night. But we had a sprinkle of rain during the night, too, and the air is much better now.

fire warning status

The next day, the wind switched back and forth, blew hard, stopped dead, and then blew hard again from another direction, hard enough to topple fairly weighty objects in the yard and push against a standing person. Wherever the wind was pushing that fire, it was going fast.

That night, I took out the dogs and looked around. I was really worried about what might happen during the night. There was a dull red glow over the tops of the trees, like the last bit of sunset — only to the northeast. The fire had already burned past us.

We have firefighters from all over the state and the country. New Mexico has sent some; bless their sandy hearts for helping us. Two big fire trucks and two pickups, all from out of the area, were up my road today searching for firespots and planning strategies, checking on the houses and people.

I am grateful; people can be really good, that’s for sure. A friend called up repeatedly that day to check on us and offer their home; we went round and checked on the two single-person households on our road.

There are lots of other fires burning, and I suspect this whole summer will be risky. But that one was the Godzilla: over 20,000 acres burned. The fire is still burning, but it’s gone way down now.

I”m exhausted from moving my stuff into storage. The last load is out, and the storage unit in Spokane is right across the street from a fire station. One way or another, it’s goodbye to Ferry County.

You would not believe the extent of this disaster. Hundreds of miles of smoke. Blood-red moons and a sun I can stare at directly for the first time in my life. Spokane itself looks like some future armageddon, with thick, palpable smog, like a lifetime of cigarettes in two breaths. People are wearing filter masks.

I’m back from storing load #2. The air quality has improved somewhat in Spokane. It cleared quite a bit in Ferry County this morning because of the wind last night. And you know the weird thing? Last night was also very, very cold for this time of year.

Still, there are fires all over. In Ferry and northern Stevens County, they’ve gotten worse, like a thick coastal sea fog irritating my throat.

On the way out this morning, through Sherman Pass, we passed several convoys of firefighting vehicles. On the return trip, we saw parked fire vehicles that had been monitoring fires throughout the night. The roads through Sherman Pass are now marked by National Guard Humvees and soldiers. Rest stops are stocked with fire and ambulence vehicles and staff.

There are so many fires I have completely lost track of them. We depend on a friend who monitors the fire map, Ferry County Sheriff updates, and wind shifts. Certain wind directions are dangerous for us. Right now, though, it’s dead calm. Yesterday was also calm.

The wind is expected to return. The Stickpin fire was six miles northeast of my home when I last checked at the fire center at Curlew School. We will be okay unless the wind blows from the east. Then it will be time to go.

Republic is seriously preparing to become a ghost town. Ferry County evacuees are being directed 40 miles away, to the next county. The Red Cross and the hospital are getting ready to go. Meanwhile, thieves issued false evacuation alerts and then proceeded to rob abandoned homes. If they’re caught, they may get Wild West justice. And several locals chased away firefighters, claiming that the smoke was a Homeland Security ploy to seize their land. They are now in jail.

* * *

We are presently on Level 2 evacuation: “Be ready to leave on a moment’s notice.” When Republic went to Level 2, I called family friends who live in the town to tell them; they were not actively monitoring the situation. Their reaction on hearing the update: “Well, we’ll put the stuff in the car in the morning.” Then back to the TV football game.

I’m reminded that while Vesuvius was sending more and more ash and smoke into the sky, most of the citizens of Pompeii were carrying on as usual. We have summer residents who park campers and trailers next to the normally pleasant Kettle River. They’re still there, enveloped in smoke. As far as I can tell, none has bothered to leave. And now they can’t leave, except by way of the eastern Sherman Pass route; the other highways are closed.

Some people clearly do not process emergencies: denial, complacency, trust in public services, dullness, whatever. I hope nothing worse comes of our fire situation. But I’m amazed how many people fail to react to an obvious risk. I hope their homes stay safe, but some people have already lost theirs.

Copyright © 2015 by Danielle L. Parker

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