"I could show you what it looked like before the fire." Shane Horton pulls out his tablet in the smoke-filled parking lot of Hank's supermarket, where two Humvees full of tired-looking National Guardsmen are keeping watch for looters. It's a national emergency here in rural Twisp; nearby, the largest wildfire in Washington State history has been burning for 14 days. On the other side of the Okanogan Complex—which is actually six fires—another fire on the Colville Reservation is burning, too. Some worry the two will merge.
Three firefighters died here the previous week. The land looks like a blackened moonscape. Stress and a thick blanket of smoke blur the days together. Everyone is praying for rain.
Horton is a big, smiley guy with a graying ponytail and forearm muscles the size of my whole face. I guess that's what happens to a person's arms after 20 years carving ancient mammal bones called fossil ivory, which is what Horton used to do before all his art tools—acquired over decades, something to the tune of $50,000—were destroyed, along with his entire home. Horton had less than half an hour to get away from the 35-mile-per-hour firestorm that ripped through the valley where he lives, one that made a sound like "a huge train or Learjet... just reverberating through my whole body," he remembers.
But Horton is not talking about this year's fire. He's talking about last year's fire, the Carlton Complex, which, at that point was the biggest in Washington State history. Horton has now lived through both. He's one of many people preparing for a "new normal" in the Pacific Northwest, where communities fear that megafires will drive residents away and further erode their already-small tax base, leaving fewer people with bigger burdens of recovery. The Environmental Protection Agency predicts that Pacific Northwest wildfires will burn double the acres we've historically seen every year by mid-century if climate change continues unmitigated. In the Okanogan Highlands specifically, climate scientists predict the area burned could increase by a factor of four.
Horton pulls up Google Earth, which shows what used to be his modest home tucked into a thick clump of ponderosa pine, fir, and maple trees. Now the land looks blitzed. "All the trees you see there," he says, "are toast."
On August 20, a day before the Twisp fire took the lives of three firefighters, Horton was living in a fifth wheel (no one calls it an RV) on his property in the Chiliwist Valley. Volunteers—Mennonites, Anabaptists, and others—had started building his new home. Then authorities issued a Level 3 evacuation for the area, but Horton refused to leave. Instead, he shelled out $450 for a pump to siphon water from a nearby creek, armed himself with a 50-foot fire hose, and prepared to defend what little he had left.
Staying in the fifth wheel that night was "disheartening," Horton says. Just the sound of the wind whipping through burned trees reminded him of the roar of last year's fire. But the fire spared Horton's RV and property. Now he has just $300 for the next 22 days until he gets a paycheck from his new job working at a local farm.
Okanogan is the second poorest county in Washington State by median household income. It's also one of Washington's largest counties, land-wise—stretching more than 5,000 square miles, including part of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, right up to the Canadian border—and one of the least densely populated, with an average of eight people per square mile.
The Carlton Complex hit Okanogan hard. The White House declared Carlton a national emergency, and FEMA issued a public assistance declaration, opening up funding for public agencies and tribes. To date, FEMA has spent more than $13.1 million on public assistance grants in Okanogan County, repairing roads, culverts, bridges, and fiber-optic cable.
But Okanogan's needs extend far beyond that. Governor Jay Inslee twice asked FEMA for an individual assistance declaration—funding that would aid individual homeowners—and twice the agency declined. The impact was "not of the severity and magnitude" required, a FEMA administrator wrote in response.
That's when Carlene Anders stepped in. Anders was one of the first two female smoke jumpers to hop out of planes in the state of Washington; she's fought fires since she was 18 years old. Anders also used to run a day-care center, but the Carlton Complex changed all that. For the last year, Anders has been working 10-hour days, seven days a week, as part of the Carlton Complex Long Term Recovery Campaign, a grassroots group of local residents focused on disaster case management and building new housing. Their funding comes entirely from private donations.
When I meet with Anders, we take shelter from the floating carcinogens inside the only bakery in the town of Pateros, where people are passing in and out to ask how each other's phone lines are doing. Anders's phone is blowing up with calls from legislative staff and members of her disaster network.
Anders says that if Okanogan didn't get assistance from FEMA last year, they'd be in even more serious trouble this year. She's already worried about what might happen if the county doesn't receive enough FEMA dollars after the Okanogan Complex stops burning. (As of August 30, the fire had burned 304,782 acres, and by September 1 was still consuming 144,479 acres.)
"People don't deal with 400 or 500 homes gone out of their community and not have it internally affect every system of life," Anders says. "Like with the school district here, K through 12, there were two to four students in every single grade—didn't miss one grade—who lost their home. And a third of the staff, six of the staff. So those people are just getting back into homes right now."
Anders places her hands firmly on the table when she's talking, palms perpendicular to the surface like two fences, showing how recovery works when a wildfire like the Carlton Complex rips through a place like Okanogan and wipes out 256,108 acres. Wildfires burn Washington every year, but not like this, Anders says, not in the way that much of Okanogan County is now unrecognizable because of last year's destruction—miles and miles of scorched trunks and rootless, mudslide-prone earth.
So now some Carlton survivors are building metal fences instead of timber ones, clearing out vegetation, and using volunteers to build structures that anticipate more fires in the future. Much of that rebuilding is thanks to Anders's endless work, which has taken a personal toll. She says she's gained weight but doesn't eat. She is not getting enough sleep. There is still so much work to do.
Anders's daughter also fought in the deadly Twisp fire the previous week. For hours, Anders didn't know whether her daughter was one of the victims. She heard that a rig got burned—one firefighter, then two more—but her cell phone wasn't working. It wasn't until 10:30 that night—about five hours later—that Anders found out her daughter was safe. After a lifetime of fighting fires, and more than a year of helping her community recover from the unprecedented disaster of the Carlton Complex, including the loss of her mother's and her family's homes, Anders was most shaken by the not-knowing.
At times, Anders looks at her hands when speaking, as if they're the only evidence she's here now and not permanently stuck in those awful five hours.
Out of the 260 primary-residence homes in Okanogan destroyed by the Carlton Complex last year, the Carlton Complex Long Term Recovery Campaign has plans to rebuild 14 homes now, and another 26 through 2017. But in the midst of this new disaster, the recovery progress has slowed. Most of the contractors also fight fires. The need for skilled firefighters has been so great that specialized teams from Australia and New Zealand have been flown in.
It didn't help that last year's fire exacerbated the area's affordable-housing crisis, says Lael Duncan, executive director of Okanogan County Community Action Council. In a post-Katrina world, there's no denying that natural disasters worsen social fault lines, and it's no different in rural Washington: The poor, the uninsured, and the nonwhite tend to get hit hardest, and the poor, uninsured, and the nonwhite often have the least resources to recover. Some people just moved away, Duncan says, while others rented an apartment if they could find one.
This wasn't entirely unpredictable. Ten years ago, Duncan's organization partnered with the California Institute of Earth Art and Architecture, or Cal-Earth, an organization that builds structures originally intended for life on another planet. Nader Khalili, the creator of Superadobe, first developed the idea in partnership with NASA to build structures that could be made out of materials available in space. During his work with NASA, Khalili realized that the same structures built for interplanetary exploration could be used for low-cost disaster housing here on Earth. They'd be fireproof, hurricane-proof, and tornado-proof, and made of nothing but barbed wire and sandbags.
Superadobe didn't quite catch on in Okanogan, where many people live in aging mobile homes, single-family homes, vacation rentals, or shacks. The price of concrete went up, and labor proved prohibitively expensive, too. But Duncan thinks that these latest fires could prove a turning point in how people think about their future in Okanogan. "No one who has lived here all [his or her] life has seen anything like this," she says.
The instant transformation of her surroundings is not an easy thing for Duncan to talk about. Many people in Okanogan won't see tall pines on their property again in their lifetime. And it's not just the landscape, she says; it's livelihoods and traditions being destroyed. "It goes far beyond the word 'disaster,'" she says.
It also goes beyond people directly impacted by the fire. Almost everyone I spoke to in Okanogan worries about the county's financial burdens shifting to the diminishing number of people who haven't been burned out.
"We have 64 taxing districts in Okanogan County, and every one of them turns in a budget in the fall, asking for property tax in the fall," Okanogan County assessor Scott Furman explains. "So if your tax base declines in the wildfire, all that happens is levy rates go up and you collect the same amount of money."
People who can't afford to leave could end up paying more for public services in already-impoverished areas. "We're the ones that do hurt because everybody's surrounded by it," Karen Sutherland, a mother of two whose husband works as a mechanic at a nearby orchard, tells me. "There's poor-poor," she says, as if to acknowledge that there are people who have it worse. "But we're poor, you know? And we're not medium, and we're not rich."
Sutherland, a member of the Splatsin First Nation, lives in Brewster, one of the towns heavily impacted by Carlton last year. She refused to evacuate while her husband fought a fire at the orchard, and this year is volunteering at the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation donation center. She worries about her kids, about the fact that the local park doesn't even have a decent slide, and about water rates that have jumped 18 percent since the Carlton fire. Since last year's fires, she's also noticed that some elderly people and kids—including her nephew—are losing their appetites. She suspects it's because of the smoke.
Shane Horton doesn't doubt that the future in Okanogan County will look very different than the Okanogan he grew up with. And while scientists aren't blaming the last two years' fires exclusively on climate change—in addition to drought and high temperatures, forest management and weird weather also factored into the fire-prone landscape—he doesn't doubt that climate change is playing a role. No one I spoke to over two days in this rural corner of the state did.
"Here we are, right in the middle of it," Horton says. "It doesn't mean that it's all going to explode on us overnight, but things are changing rapidly, and if we don't as a human race figure it out, I feel like more and more of this is going to happen."
Horton worries. He's 45, and he doesn't have the resources to leave and start his art career from scratch again.
But now Horton has a different vision for his 11.5 acres of land. He's going to build his new home with cement siding to make it more fireproof. If there aren't any living trees left on his property, he plans to grow herbs and berry bushes.
"The land would be really good for goats," Horton says. At the mention of goats, Horton's shoulders relax. Suddenly, his face brightens.