As I rushed out the door to catch an early morning flight into Seattle, I received an alarming phone call from Paul Smotherman, host of the tour show in Winthrop, Washington. “It’s not good,” he said. “They’re evacuating the whole Methow Valley.” Paul, along with his wife Audrey, are the proprietors of the North Cascades Mountain Hostel and hosts of Mountainfilm on Tour. This was to be my second time bringing Mountainfilm to Winthrop and the second year in a row that wildfires have engulfed the valley in eastern Washington.
Winthrop is a small town that thrives on summer tourism. On the east side of the Cascades, it’s similar to Telluride—a place where outdoor recreation thrives and the sense of community is strong. The Winthrop show is an evening when locals gather in the park, sitting in camp chairs or curled up in sleeping bags, to watch a selection of films from the Mountainfilm festival in Telluride. I fell in love with the venue immediately because it reminded me of Mountainfilm’s Adrenaline program at the outdoor Base Camp theater in Telluride Town Park—my favorite festival event.
After a few phone calls and much deliberation about whether or not the show would go on, I hopped on the flight and hoped for a change in the wind. As the plane flew over the Cascades, I could see plumes of smoke billowing from the ridgelines below me. My heart sank.
Living in the West, wildfires have been a persistent part of my life. When I lived in Santa Barbara, California, I observed the Jesusita fire from the harbor, which raged unnervingly close on the mountains above town. A few years later, after my cousin’s wedding in Fort Collins, Colorado, my sister Natalie changed from her dress into full wildland firefighting gear. I gave her a hug as she descended into the night, going back to fight the fire that threatened the town where she grew up.
When the plane landed in Seattle, I heard more about the mass devastation taking place. Three firefighters had perished in Twisp, the closest town down the road from Winthrop, when the fire engulfed their engine. The show was definitely cancelled.
Every summer, we wage war on wildfires that spread wider than ever because of extreme drought conditions. Millions of dollars are spent. Lives are lost. Although lightning and other natural starters are the main causes for many of these fires, we need to lower our water consumption to ease the drought-stricken areas of the West. Because now, more than ever, it seems that we’re only kicking Goliath’s shins.
My trip to Washington was not all lost. I visited the Bavarian village of Leavenworth and caught up with Paul and an old friend who was fresh off fighting the Okanogan Complex fire. Although their rivers are lower than average and clouds of smoke linger above, the locals remain steadfast and welcome tourists warmly, both visitors and those who’ve been evacuated from their homes. And there’s a silver lining: Rain is in the forecast.
The annual Mountainfilm on Tour show in Winthrop embodies Mountainfilm’s motto of celebrating indomitable spirit. The show has been rescheduled for September 26, 2015. A portion of the event’s proceeds will go to the families of the fallen firefighters. To learn more, visit the Twisp River Fallen Firefighter website.