When driving on US 97 from Ellensburg to Wenatchee, thick fingers of smoke from the Washington wildfires smother the myriads of Evergreen trees and hover like an ominous warning sign. The normal blue skies are tinged with gray and unnatural hues of orange, brown and red, marking the destruction that is taking place. Further, down US 97, the smokes condenses even more and begins to tower, eventually becoming a massive plume billowing above the area its devouring. Eyes burn and throats constrict as the locals experience the results of inhaling ash and smoke. Discouragement swarms thickly as once-thriving homes become engulfed, and memories vanish into floating particles. In the midst of all the devastation the wildfires in Washington, hope seems too far off.
Every day, the threat of evacuation hangs in the air. Residents of all ages wear masks to protect their lungs. Members of the fire departments hold community meetings in safe locations, keeping the towns of Leavenworth, Wenatchee, Entiat and Chelan informed with up-to-date details.
Despite the chaos and devastation of the wildfires burning much of Eastern Washington this summer, there is hope in the midst of the fire-ravaged communities. Families are coming together and becoming stronger, even strangers are appearing out of the woodwork to donate money and needed items to help soothe the loss of the victims. Shelters are also being provided through the generous hearts of community members and churches.
This year, fire season started in full-force. All too quickly, hundreds of thousands of acres were ablaze, destroying scores of trees, homes, and memories. Sharp, smoky hazes settled over numerous towns. For the cities of Entiat, Chelan, Leavenworth and numerous others around it, fresh air became just a refreshing idea.
Western Washington residents on social media sites and via the news reported seeing mushroom clouds rising over the Cascades. In a recent article, a KOMO news correspondent renamed the phenomenon as a “pyrocumulus cloud.” Officials in Olympia quickly acted and immediately began seeking donations to help the myriad fire victims. President Obama declared Washington to be in a state of emergency. The National Guard promptly responded, sending hundreds of brave, dedicated soldiers to reinforce the existing team of fire fighters battling the blazes.
One of the fires, the Carlton Complex, is estimated at 400 square miles in size, which is four times bigger than the city of Seattle. Temperatures soaring in the triple digits and strong winds have been fuel for the fire, making the fire grossly unpredictable for the firefighters. Cooler temperatures and periodic rain showers, however, have allowed the firefighters to contain it up to 52 percent. Fire spokesman Pete Buist told The Spokesman-Review that the Carlton Complex is “the biggest wildfire in the state’s history.”
Caught in the blaze of the Washington wildfires was a town known as Pateros, now reduced to charred remains. Hundreds of former residents are displaced, faced with the reality of starting over with nothing and finding affordable housing in an already plummeting economy. Along with the Carlton Complex fire, Chiwaukum Complex near Leavenworth is at 10 percent containment and the Mills Canyon Fire is 90 percent containment. Combined, these fires have destroyed over 34,000 acres. More than 700,000 gallons of water have been used so far in efforts to contain the fires.
A strong, beacon of hope in the midst of those affected by the devastating Washington wildfires has been the Red Cross’ Apple Valley Chapter in Wenatchee. Since the very beginning, they have been orchestrating donations and establishing shelters for hundreds to find temporary rest and provisions. Both volunteers and regular workers have banded together, forming a tight-knit team. One woman, Diane Hermanson, volunteers her time as a mental health caseworker and lends her emotional support to the victims, especially those from Pateros.
“When you first meet people who’ve just experienced a disaster,” she shares, “what they often need most [is] to be able to tell their story.” Therefore, she does just that. “It’s a comfort [for them] to talk about it. It’s important to have someone listen, really listen, to them.”
Hermanson’s testimony and selfless example, along with the service of the National Guard, hundreds of firefighters and the community members supporting the victims, brings the strong message of hope to Washington residents in the midst of the wildfire devastation. Donations, especially blood, are still welcome. For those interested in donating either money or items to the victims of the Washington wildfires, detailed instructions can be found in the local newspaper in town, The Wenatchee World.
By Rachel Roddy