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Two Years Of Fire, Smoke And Mud Throws Long Shadows In The Methow Valley

After two years of some of the worst fires and smoke the Northwest has ever seen, Washington’s Methow Valley is catching its breath. Dozens of businesses didn’t make it through and the fires still throw a long shadow.

The still, green waters of Patterson Lake seem really far from all the fire, smoke and mud. Leaf Seaburg started a pro fly fishing guide service in 2014. That’s when the Carlton Complex fire hit.

On a recent evening, he was out on a large aluminum boat with his two fish-crazy boys -- Leo, 9, and Finley, 7. The Kokanee were biting, but they’re hard to land.

Two years of fire have washed silt and mud and houses into rivers here -- smothering the fish. Volunteers have hauled out about 55,000 pounds of stuff.

“We’re getting to low water, and I’m noticing some stuff we missed,” Seaburg said. “Tires and pipes and stuff like that. We’ll be going back.”

Fire and floods have hammered his fishing business. On top of all that, his family’s home burned. Now he’s trying to build back his clients.

But Seaburg said his sons have only just stopped drawing pictures of fires and having nightmares. His dark sunglasses don’t hide the tears running.

“You can’t feel bad for yourself,” he said. “I mean, in the grand scope of people affected around the world by things, this is pretty much a first world problem. But when you see your kids suffering from it is tough.”

‘We all just hold our breath and watch'

In nearby Winthrop, Kathleen Jardin trolled for a different kind of catch: Customers for her art gallery and the vacation homes and cabins she rents out.

“Typically, August has been the strongest month -- until the last two years,” Jardin said. “What we found this year is that people are waiting later to book.”

And when they do call, Jardin said, “People are asking us about air quality, if we have smoke in the air, if we have fires. So they are definitely remembering.”

Only about 85 percent of the places she manages are rented. Pre-Carlton it would have been booked out.

Everyone up here is having a great time but Jardin said, “Every time a fire truck goes by we all just hold our breath and watch and see what direction it goes.”

‘I reckon I’ll just stay here'

A bit down valley, Chuck Kisner said he spent years building up this small cattle ranch.

“And then watch it burn to the ground in one day,” he said. “And then you ask yourself, ‘Do you got it in you to go again?’”

He lost barns, shops, fence, farm equipment, multiple vehicles -- everything but the house. He’s built back the buildings and two miles of barbed wire fence - - and the scars and deep callouses on his palms show it.

“That’s all I’ve done in two years is build fence,” Kisner said. “Them hands, they’ve done it all.”

Kisner and his farming neighbors have bought water trucks, and fire equipment -- sort of formed their own unofficial fire department to help each other when fire comes again.

“Fire is just like combat,” Kisner said. “You’re not scared when you’re in it. You just scared when it’s over.”

Now, his grass-fed cattle business has just barely squared up. Some neighbors have left. But Kisner said, “I always did like the mountains. And I like cattle, and it’s a pretty good place to be. So I reckon I’ll just stay here.”

Here in the Methow Valley where wildflowers have roared back, but rust colored flame retardant still stains mailboxes. Here where people still talk about the luck they had, and what they lost.


Anna King calls Richland, Washington home and loves unearthing great stories about people in the Northwest. She reports for the Northwest News Network from a studio at Washington State University, Tri-Cities. She covers the Mid-Columbia region, from nuclear reactors to Mexican rodeos.