This past week I visited areas that were burned in the Carlton Complex fires, which now rank as the state’s worst in recorded history. Part of a neighborhood was burnt down in the small town of Pateros, on the Columbia River. More than 300 homes were lost in the Carlton Complex blaze as of late July, which still is the epicenter multiple fires now burning in Okanogan County. It is deeply saddening to see a person’s or family’s dreams turned to black ash.
I believe this fire will be a watershed in how this state contemplates dealing with people living and building in the so-called fire wildland-urban interface zones, which are at high risk of wildfires. Insurance companies will no doubt be rewriting their policies. The larger issues of how we will prepare for a drier, hotter, and more fire-prone future because of ongoing climate change remains to be seen. I expect more fires of this magnitude in the future in this part of the West.
I do not know if those with money or big dreams will still be flocking to resort and natural areas like the Methow Valley to live closer to nature, now that we have tasted nature’s wrath. My experience as a former St. Louisan, where I have witnessed two 100-year floods on the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, is that people will likely again build and return in areas once destroyed. The pressures to do so likely will overwhelm many of our best efforts to prevent through smart planning the next all-but certain natural disaster. (Click on each photograph to see larger pictures on a separate picture page.)
(Note this post was updated on Aug. 11, to reflect a more accurate count of the fire damage based on media accounts from local officials.)