The thick, noxious smoke hangs low and heavy over the Okanogan valley, an oppressive hand that is felt in the trepidation of the three weary travelers in the speeding truck and trailer. My dad, my brother, and I are racing to our cabin which lies in the path of a hungry fire that’s feeding voraciously on the hot, dry forest. The reports have been grim: The Fire had been growing slowly, 10,000 acres a few days ago, 12,000 acres today. The beast eagerly awaits what it seems to somehow know is arriving in a few short hours…a weather front carrying twenty mile-per-hour winds, winds forecast to blow from south to north, pushing The Fire directly to our family spread of vacation property and cabins just outside the town of Chesaw.
The news came the night before. Level Three evacuation for all residents in the area, including my aunts who live on the neighboring property. Get Out Now. They had been sitting on a level one alert and the jump to level three came suddenly, frighteningly. We got the news as we sat on the patio of my sister’s house on the west side of the Cascades. Hasty plans were made. I called a friend and borrowed a trailer. My dad, brother, and I would leave at 4 a.m. My brother-in-law would head out four hours later, grabbing another borrowed trailer on the way. We would rescue as much as we could from the cabin and bring it back to safety. We would hope that we were making a completely unnecessary trip. Hope for the best, plan for the worst as they say.
Our little familial enclave was raw land when we cumulatively acquired it forty years ago. Our cabins were all built by our own hands, the blood, sweat, and tears of all of us poured into their creation. We have saved and scrimped and added to our cabin as we could spare the money to do so. Their safety has been threatened many times over the years, but never so directly and direly as this. The last few years has seen a colossal increase in the fire danger of the northeast Washington forest. Many of us have put fire safety precautions into work across the property over the last few years, thinning the forest around our cabins, removing and burning dead trees and underbrush, making strides to hopefully eliminate the majority of the fuel that would nurture the dreaded fire. It has always seemed inevitable that The Fire will one day arrive, and now it seems that formidable day is here.
As we pass through the towns of Okanogan, Omak, and Tonasket, men clad in yellow shirts and green pants loiter in the parking lots and stores. Their vehicles are green and white, light bars of red adorn the cabs, water tanks and diamond-plate bins clutter the beds. A ragtag band of firefighters fueling their vehicles and their bodies, petrol in the former, donuts and hot-case gut bombs of gas station delights in the latter. They are in no hurry, laughing and slouching lazily against their trucks. “Get to the fire!” we shout at them. They can’t hear us through the glass of the speeding truck. Nor do we actually want them to hear our pleas. Unlike most urban firefighters, these wildland heroes work their asses off in a palpably demanding and dangerous job, willingly putting themselves into the path of peril and hazard to protect the property of strangers. We know they’re preparing themselves for the battle that will be coming later today or tomorrow. Right now, The Fire is still in the National Forest. It’s a lightning-strike fire, a natural calamity that must be allowed to burn. The health of the forest requires the cleansing effect of the burn, and these men, and presumably women, though we see none, know this. They’ll begin their assault when it spreads out of the boundaries of the forest and into the adjoining land. Our land.
As we crest the tops of the hills, we get our first view of the beast. Smoke rises and spreads across the sky from numerous hot spots. We watch as The Fire consumes tall trees, the swirling smoke and flame hungrily thrusting toward the sky like a beacon, The Fire letting all know that it is alive and on the move. We take a moment to watch, to marvel at the enemy and all the power that rumbles hungrily under the gray-brown clouds of its anger. We move on.
Arriving at the cabin, we load machines and tools. People tend to think that when a fire consumes a house or cabin, the owners will be made whole by insurance. I have no idea how often this is true, but I know that none of us have insurance against fire. We’ve tried, but no company will insure us. The danger of forest fire in this area is too great. It’s inevitable, and insurance companies don’t wager money on guaranteed losers. We’re on our own. Our insurance company is the group of men currently stuffing donuts down their throats twenty miles down the hill. It isn’t a comfortable feeling.
We load our most expensive equipment and tools into the trailer and the back of my truck. We gather irreplaceable mementos from inside the cabin. We take a moment to marvel at the hubris that caused us to pile a collection of fuel cans and propane tanks around the cabin. We’ve created a bomb in the forest, and we disarm it, laughing at ourselves. We place spare roofing—tin panels that represent our only passive defense against the raging flames around our beloved structure, hoping that if The Fire gets close, the tin will keep flying sparks from grasping a purchase on the wood siding.
The rancher who runs the cattle on our land is loading his herd into trailers to be evacuated. They normally graze their cattle here from May to October. They’re pulling them two months early, and the reason is obvious. The rancher is nonchalant and relaxed as he works to gather the herd. The Fire stirs two miles away, but he has time. He lives in this area. He knows the enemy well, dealing with it in one form or another every year. He’ll move his cattle to safety, and next year, if The Fire has made our property unfit for grazing, he’ll find another place. He has no vested long-term interest here but he wishes us luck nonetheless. We’ll need it.
A National Forest fire truck drives down the dusty gravel road checking on residents, marking those who’ve ignored the order to evacuate. It stops just down the road from our property and we watch as the driver speaks to the isolated hermit who lives there. The man’s dog runs around the truck excitedly. The man’s donkey brays at the strangers who have interrupted its routine. They all seem completely oblivious to the looming danger. One could forgive the dog and the donkey. It’s harder to fathom the man who won’t leave, but it is a free country, and it is his decision, and the firefighters move on.
Finished loading the truck and trailer, we move out, my brother driving the side-by-side. It isn’t street-legal, but this is an evacuation—the normal rules don’t apply. We’ll meet my brother-in-law in Tonasket and readjust our load so we can get all the machines on trailers. We make another stop at the viewpoint to marvel at The Fire once more. It has moved, inching closer, and, as we watch it, the first bit of wind tickles at our clothes, the tickle becoming a push as it increases in strength. We mark its direction. Not due north as we most feared, but northeast. It’s only a few degrees on the compass, but it’s just enough to give us a vestige of hope. Of course, a benevolent course for us is a malevolent course for someone else. We hope that this year will not be the year that anybody has to suffer a loss to the grumbling beast in front of us, but we pray that the wind direction will remain unchanged.
We know that if The Fire doesn’t get its due today, it doesn’t care. It has all the time in the world, and its day will come. As long as the average summer temperature keeps increasing, the forest will keep drying and getting more perilous. One day, if not today, The Fire will arrive at our doorstep. We can only hope that our problems lie in the future. We say very little as we drive off without another look back.