I’m in my temporary office on Glover Street in Twisp, Washington watching the view a block away disappear into a haze of smoke from a series of wildfires burning nearby. Even with the air conditioner on, there is a faint smell of smoke inside. It doesn’t help that the temperature is 100 degrees with 16% humidity.
Every place irrigation doesn’t reach is ready-made fuel: dry grasses flank the hillsides for miles north and south, east and west and up and down the hillsides. Everyone along the River Road is watering the lawns that serve as fire barriers around their houses.
Yesterday, I drove right through the center of the fire activity once in the early morning and then again in the late afternoon. It’s amazing how the wind conditions affect the fires and smoke. At 8:00 in the morning yesterday, the temperature was around 70 degrees. I had the top down on my car, and the air was cool, crisp and clean. This was along Lake Entiat, one of the towns where fire is burning as I write. By late afternoon on my return, sometime between 4 and 5, the air was choked with smoke, and as I followed Route 153 North toward Twisp, I caught sight of flames in the billows of smoke that shrouded the hillside. Overhead, a helicopter with a large water bucket swooped over the Methow River, and small planes were also surveying the scene.
I’ve developed a persistent need to clear my throat, and a short walk from the grocery store brought on a fit of coughing. I saw the firefighters yesterday in their gear, leaning smudge-faced and exhausted by their trucks. I can only imagine what it’s like for them in the heat of the fire under all their protective clothing.
Sitting at the counter of the Glover Street Market earlier, I heard that there were already evacuations as close as Carlton, just a short drive down the river from here. Yet everyone is more or less going about their business. Fire is a familiar for us. I mean that the way I said it, the way cats are familiars to witches.
Fire is our familiar. It’s a destructive and sometimes necessary talisman, the polar opposite of the lush riparian farming culture of our place. It takes what it wants whenever it wants it. Like the heat, the fire demands respect. It demands attention. The smallest spark, a flash of lightning, a dropped match or flicked cigarette can set it off. Even with our best behavior, it’s waiting in the dry grass, in the dry air itself, to ignite.
It’s another reminder that we are only renting here, only resting. Landslide, flood, fire. Nature is always in control.