How to rebuild in a time of endless fire

Okanogan County, Washington, had hardly recovered from the last devastating wildfire when the next one struck.

The story that takes place after an acute disaster such as a fire or a flood is generally unglamorous, especially when compared with the adrenaline-charged heroics of fighting fires or rescuing people who are trapped or injured. In this era of catastrophe, we can always distract ourselves with the next fire, the next flood, the next tragedy — ride the crest of the drama without asking what happens in the years after a place burns.

But it’s important to understand how people can recover, too. After all, sifting through the wreckage, putting things back in order where possible, salvaging what still has value — these tasks are no less important, and in some ways require even greater mettle.

 

In 2014, the Carlton Complex Fire tore through Okanogan County, in north-central Washington. Hundreds of people were forced to evacuate, and more than 350 homes were destroyed. The flames were particularly destructive in the small town of Pateros, at the confluence of the Columbia and Methow rivers, where they reached into the very heart of the community, even destroying the town’s water towers.

Carlene Anderson lived in Pateros and had spent 17 seasons fighting fire. She had never seen such dangerous and intractable conditions. She remembered thinking, as she battled the flames of the Carlton Complex, “We are not going to contain this. We’re not going to be able to handle this.”

After the fire, she and her neighbors looked at the burned-up town and felt that they could never let this happen here again. Carlene’s mother lost her home, a rental property and an orchard down the valley. Several children in every grade were houseless, along with about one-fifth of the school district staff and one-third of the fire department. Many months would pass before the kids in town would stop playing fire” — like playing house, except your house is burning down and you have to pack up and evacuate. 

Eventually Carlene realized she had crossed over into a new sort of reality, where climate change stoked more dangerous and more frequent wildfires. They would all meet this sort of fire again, and they would all have to learn how to protect themselves, how to rebuild, and how to help one another through.

IMMEDIATELY AFTER THE FIRE, the people of Pateros began en masse cleaning up trash and debris. There were yards full of ash and rubble to dig up; truckloads of melted and warped scrap metal to haul away; concrete foundations to be excavated or buried onsite; burned trees and brush to remove. It was like an archaeological dig in reverse. Could you take a major catastrophe and hide it, bury it, haul it away, so that people could move on with their lives?

A stream of donations from around the country started piling up in the Pateros fire hall, the city hall and the school, and someone had to decide what to do with all of it. Some things were useful — water, food, clothing in good condition. But many were not — broken appliances, old bird cages, tattered swimsuits, a rusted push mower. There were enough items to fill multiple warehouses. They required perpetual sorting and reorganizing. 

Could you take a major catastrophe and hide it, bury it, haul it away, so that people could move on with their lives?

Carlene threw all her energy into helping manage this messy recovery process. She knew nothing about disaster recovery — an entire professional field of its own — and felt as if she was cramming a university course of study in the subject into just a few months. She spent every day scouring websites, making phone calls to navigate the convoluted processes of applying for government aid and philanthropy, getting access to heavy equipment, dealing with cleanup of wastes both hazardous and benign, and addressing miscellaneous government requirements. 

She helped set up the Pateros-Brewster Long Term Recovery Organization. (Brewster, a small city just north of Pateros, had also sustained fire damage.) She worked without pay until she couldn’t any longer. In September, the group’s board cobbled together a salary for her, and she took the helm as its executive director. Just a few months later, she took charge of the Carlton Complex Long Term Recovery Group, which led the effort across the county.

The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) supplied money to rebuild public buildings and infrastructure in communities damaged by the Carlton Complex Fire, but refused any aid to private property owners, a decision that frustrated many in the valley, including Carlene. FEMA also called in legions of disaster volunteers. Many of the major Christian churches have disaster response wings, some of them vast and well organized. Such volunteers are not supposed to preach, only help. “Disaster chaplains,” clergy and some laypeople trained to support survivors of disasters, usually commit to a code of ethics that includes this fundamental rule: “Do not proselytize.” By the fall of 2014, teams of volunteers from Christian Aid Ministries, Western Anabaptist Mission Services and Mennonite Disaster Service had arrived. 

Carlene’s new organization housed some of the volunteers at Alta Lake — a tiny resort area two miles south of downtown Pateros that had been ravaged by the fires. They stayed in a motel that had survived the disaster, but the keys, in a now-torched outbuilding that had served as a clubhouse, had all melted. “So we had to crawl through windows and open the doors,” Carlene said. Then the volunteers were dispatched all over the area to help with cleaning up, clearing debris and providing emotional support. 

It was a massive endeavor. In Pateros and Brewster, disaster chaplains helped people sift through ash so they could try to recover lost belongings, valuable jewelry, ceramics. A group of retired veterans and firefighters made house calls and cleared debris. “They were fast and furious,” Carlene recalled.

Some locals set up entire new business ventures based on the cleanup effort. For instance, a Pateros mom of a teenager started a scrapping business at the behest of her son, to help pay to rebuild her own home.

Meanwhile, there was the question of where to house people who’d been displaced. A third of the firefighters in the Pateros Fire Department had lost their own homes while they were out trying to contain the Carlton Complex and save the homes of others. The Pateros mayor stepped down shortly after the fire because her house had burned down, along with her mother’s and uncle’s homes, and she needed time to support her family. People camped around the city in tents and trailers.

 

Carlene let two wildfire survivors stay at her late grandparents’ place in Brewster. Meanwhile, the Recovery Group brought in dozens of trailers, many donated, some acquired on Facebook, and asked people with vacation homes to house the displaced. In the fallow months of winter, a local orchard let wildfire survivors move into its farmworker housing. 

The first person to rebuild was a retired teacher named Sue. She was one of the lucky few to make a successful insurance claim, and she hired contractors to put up a new house where her old one had been, near the golf course at Alta Lake. The volunteers helped clear her yard. One photo of the communitys work on this house would become iconic: Carlene and other community members and volunteers raising Sue’s first wall with their hands. In the end, it was a modest house, tan and brown with an ample garage — done by Christmas. The symbol of things to come, Carlene hoped. 

As the piles of ash and debris shrank and disappeared from the landscape, she and her collaborators, including philanthropists from around the area, decided they would build more houses for those who had little to no means to recover on their own. There were many in this category. The people of Okanogan County — wherein sit Pateros, Twisp, Winthrop, parts of the Colville Reservation and a scattering of other small communities in a landscape roughly the size of Connecticut — have one-third smaller household incomes on average than other people in Washington state as a whole and are nearly 70% more likely to live in poverty. People who had already been bearing this kind of strain had suddenly also lost residences, material possessions and life savings in the fire. 

First, the Recovery Group tried buying manufactured homes for people — and, in one case, experimented with a yurt. But eventually they decided they wanted to give people something better than that, real houses that might outlast the next disaster — with fire-resistant siding and metal roofs, which are not generally combustible and are unlikely to trap embers that could ignite other parts of the house. 

Anyone who got a house had to meet certain criteria. They needed to own the land and agree to live there for five years, barring extraordinary circumstances. They had to learn fire-readiness, a series of strategies for preventing a house from catching fire and making it easier for firefighters to access the property if flames did arrive.

By the spring, the Recovery Group had chosen 11 households and begun raising the millions of dollars required. The first home would go to a Latinx family who had been in Pateros for 20 years. The husband worked at the school district, and the kids attended the high school. In April 2015, troops of volunteers laid the first four foundations. They started drywalling in the summer. 

AT THIS POINT, Carlene believed she was charting a path out of the previous summers devastation. It had been a once-in-a-lifetime disaster, she thought, but her community would survive and rebuild, even if it took years.

However, the weather of 2015 was as strange as the previous year. The winter brought normal precipitation but too-warm temperatures — causing a snow drought” in the mountains that starved the streams of meltwater in the spring. A heat wave hit the Pacific Northwest in June, and a few places clocked record, over-100-degree temperatures that month. Another dry summer followed.

In mid-August, 13 months after the wildfire that assailed downtown Pateros, Carlene was attending an emergency response and recovery class led by FEMA on the west side of the Cascade Mountains, 20 miles outside Seattle. There were four dozen emergency managers in one room, and suddenly the air filled with the chirruping and buzzing of cellphones and pagers. A group of fires had lit and were spreading around Omak, a town about 30 miles north of Pateros, at the center of Okanogan County. Another called the North Star had ignited on the Colville Reservation, and four blazes were burning in Chelan County, to the southwest of Okanogan County. Evacuations had already begun.

  

The class came to an abrupt halt, and its attendees hit the road. 

Carlene returned home that afternoon. Over the next few days, she helped patrol the area in a small fire engine called a rescue rig, equipped with Jaws of Life for prying people out of cars. She was ready for any emergency that might come to the area. Pateros was spared this time, but up the valley, west of the town of Twisp, a tree branch was tossed against a sagging power line by the wind, igniting another wildfire, called the Twisp River Fire.

Carlene had the emergency radio on, and in the afternoon, she heard a caller describing a dire situation in Twisp: A crew was entrapped in the fire, and someone needed to be helicoptered out. She panicked. Her daughter, also a firefighter, had been out in a fire engine in that part of the county. “I couldnt get ahold of my daughter,” she said. “And that was her region, that area, Twisp River Road. And there were only two of them. And I thought, ‘Oh my God, thats them!’” 

Carlene drove out of town, still suited up in her firefighting gear but in her own SUV. Heading northwest, she passed a long line of cars — a parade of evacuees moving in the opposite direction. They were all going to Pateros. She called the disaster chaplains from the road. “Please call everybody you can,” she begged. “We need help right now in Pateros!”

Just before the tiny town of Carlton, she spotted the car of a local newspaper reporter, flagged her down, and asked her what had actually happened. A fire engine — not her daughters — had lost visibility in the blackness of the smoke and teetered off the road. Three firefighters perished, and Carlene knew one of the dead. He was 20 years old. She had taught him to ski when he was a little boy and had fought fires with his father. 

“Please call everybody you can. We need help right now in Pateros!”

The Twisp River Fire was one of five blazes that quickly merged into the Okanogan Complex, one of the largest wildfires in Washington state history. In the end, 120 homes were lost. The survivors and emergency responders turned to Carlene and her group. “I remember everybody looking at us and going, well, youre going to take this on, right? And there was a point where I literally got physically sick and thought, can I do this? Can I live through this? And I thought, well, who else could actually do this? We have to take this on. So then I stopped panicking a little bit, and said, ‘OK, how do we strategize to make this work?’”

She and her community had figured out how to raise their town up from the wreckage, bit by bit. They had learned much about how to recover from disaster — and this was knowledge many others would need in this precarious era. They could teach them.

You could scratch a story of hope out of the ash. It existed in what could grow back and what could be learned — on the land and among the people. 

IN 2019, FIVE YEARS after the Carlton Complex, I met Carlene in Pateros. As she marched me through the tiny downtown riverfront, she recited a list of facts and figures about the town without pause. To the east, the Columbia River shone wide and pale blue as we observed the path that the Carlton Complex Fire had traveled. Carlene pointed to a pair of round, squat cylinders with colored tiles decorating the sides of a golden bluff that rose above Pateros. Those are our water towers that got burned up there.” Both had been repaired. But in the fires aftermath, manganese, a heavy metal, had rushed into the water supply and filled the pipes, a common trouble after wildfires loosen earth and liberate certain minerals from the soil. Although it had improved, the problem had never fully gone away. Over the last three years, weve been working on replacing the water system here for the city,” she explained. Its a $7.6 million project.” 

As we walked, Carlene gestured to the many things that had burned down and were now gone, as if conjuring ghosts. It was all on fire. You used to have trees and all kinds of stuff between the railroad tracks and the highway right there.” 

She directed me into a metal-roofed building that temporarily served as a museum on the fire. Inside, a large square mirror in a white wooden frame sat propped against a cloth-draped stool. Hand-painted across the mirror were the words “Welcome to the Smoke and Reflections Exhibit.”

The room held a series of dividers covered in black cloth with displays of images mounted on them and a table set with an array of burned and warped metal and glass. Some of the items laid out here were recognizable. A glass bottle with a curved and distended neck. A shovel end with no handle. But some had liquefied and re-formed into the sort of bizarre shapes candle wax can make when it drips. Everything melted, all the radiators, all the cars, all the wires melted in place,” Carlene said. Then quietly, This was mostly my moms stuff.” 

Above the table hung a photograph of the metal frame that once sat beneath a modular home, warped and sunken and covered in bits of ash. This was my moms.” It had stood on the orchard property. It was her retirement plan. She had rentals. She lost all of our homes except for one.” The house that remained, also at the orchard, had been equipped with woodpecker-resistant cement siding, which had also turned out to be fire-resistant. The 30-acre orchard that her mother owned had been uninsured. She had gotten mad,” Carlene explained. A year and a half before, she had had welding equipment stolen, and the insurance company wouldnt pay for the welding equipment. So she canceled her insurance. She lost the shed, the tractors, the eight picker sheds, the kitchen, everything, lost it all.” 

There were other similar stories throughout the community. Carlene’s group estimated that three-fourths of the homes destroyed had been uninsured or underinsured at the time of the fires.  Some people had believed they were covered only to discover loopholes and exemptions in their policies. 

The entire exhibit had a handmade feeling, laminated photographs pinned on black fabric. An image of a brick chimney still standing while the rest of the house it had belonged to was nothing but ash. An ATV so warped it looked like folded cloth. Some images were donated by community members, including a local photographer. Some were Carlenes. A picture of a young woman and an older man clearing a yard full of ash beside a concrete wall: This is my daughter. This is the house that we built when I was young. This is my husband,” she said, gesturing to the image. It occurred to me that she had been reciting these same details to people for years.

Is it hard to keep telling this story?” I asked. 

It depends. People told me that you had to tell the story eight to 12 times before you start to lose that emotional piece of it, and so telling a story probably helps.” 

Plus, there were reasons to keep reminding people. She worried about the complacency that can set in even after a crisis. The problem is, five years down the road, are we still going to remember?” she reflected. And its going to get worse. Theres no way its not going to get worse. So we better be prepared, better do as much as we can while we can.”

THE NEXT YEAR, with most of the country now trapped in their homes due to the pandemic, millions of acres burned across Washington, Oregon and California. Fires burned through many square miles of forest and sagebrush steppe, across rangeland and grassland, through towns, jumping roads and rivers. These fires were driven by dry winds and heat. They were driven by climate change. They couldn’t be suppressed.

The smoke rose into the atmosphere and drifted a thousand miles to the west, where it entangled itself in a Pacific cyclone, spiraling across satellite images.

The fires of 2020 were frightening, Carlene told me. To the north of Pateros, the Cold Springs and Pearl Hill fires burned more than 413,000 acres. A few hundred evacuees, including farmworkers from the town of Bridgeport, had fled to Pateros and Brewster. She had driven through both downtowns and surveyed the scene just afterward, families sleeping in parked cars everywhere with dogs leashed to their side mirrors, clothing wedged in their windows to approximate privacy curtains. I thought, how do we do this? How do we do it safely in a pandemic?” She had spent six years by then developing a strategy for getting food and shelter and help to people after a fire. Now youve added another layer that makes it incredibly difficult.” Community leaders couldnt make announcements at social gatherings, for instance. It was harder to temporarily house people and give them separate air to breathe. 

There are stories of grief and horror from these fires that will never really vanish. 

But quickly a plan came together. In the years since the Carlton and Okanogan Complex Fires, Carlene had become a sought-after expert on disaster. She had offered guidance to survivors of the fire in Paradise, California, and, after the 2020 fires, she began advising the town of Malden on how to set up a recovery group like the one she had helped put together and run.

There are stories of grief and horror from these fires that will never really vanish. Still, how do you write a story about this era of disaster that doesnt end in tragedy? How do you make a life and a community in a recurring set of crises and still offer any kind of stability or safety? In spite of the devastation, people like Carlene, who regularly deal with wildfire, seem to know despair and still find a way to live in a practical strain of optimism. Not the same as hope — not anchored to expectations about the future. But the kind where you size up a catastrophic situation, decide what is available to you, and get to work, by whatever means you can. To make it through this unruly era intact, we will need to keep remembering how to do that — the work it takes to renew the world.  

Madeline Ostrander is a freelance environmental journalist based in Seattle, Washington, and the author of At Home on an Unruly Planet: Finding Refuge on a Changed Earth. Her work has also appeared in The NewYorker.com, The Nation, and Slate.

This story is excerpted from At Home on an Unruly Planet: Finding Refuge on a Changed Earth by Madeline Ostrander, out this month from Henry Holt and Company and used with permission.

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