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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘It feels like a charcoal box’: Methow Valley residents endure nearby active wildfires and hazardous smoke for weeks

The Cedar Creek Wildfire burns on Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021, outside Winthrop, Wash.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

Eric Bjornsen has adapted as best he can to seeing his store and hometown of Winthrop, Washington, deserted over the past few weeks, but it’s not easy when he can’t even see the sun.

“Those days where you really never see the sun because the smoke is so thick and it feels like a charcoal box, they’re just pretty rough,” Bjornsen said.

Bjornsen, who owns a sporting good store in town with his wife, is keeping his business open for firefighters and the residents who have stayed. Winthrop is a ghost town at this point with tourists absent and residents shuttered in to avoid the smoke.

The Methow Valley, a small community which includes the towns of Winthrop, Mazama and Twisp, is normally a hot spot for tourists looking for outdoor recreation and beautiful scenery, especially in July before the wildfire season normally gets roaring.

But things have been different in the past few weeks, with the more than 50,000-acre Cub Creek 2 and Cedar Creek wildfires directly flanking the valley and flooding it with smoke since mid-July. The still-active fires have closed state Highway 20 north of the valley, and continue to force immediate evacuations in some areas.

For Methow Valley residents who are especially resilient after a run of wildfires in recent years, this season has gone beyond the norm. With the fires being so close and the smoke so intense, it’s been a unique physical and mental strain.

While the fires are bad enough, the smoke they are producing has been remarkable in its intensity.

“This is probably the worst smoke that we’ve experienced for the past 10 years,” said Liz Walker, director of Clean Air Methow. “It’s overnight been like 400, 500 on the air quality index.”

Tucked in the North Cascades, the Methow Valley naturally pools smoke with its sharp mountains on both sides. In past weeks, smoke has reached “hazardous” levels routinely. Air quality is considered hazardous when it reaches above 300 on the air quality index, which ranges from 1 to 500.

On Monday, smoke in Winthrop caused air quality levels to reach 415 on the air quality index, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s AirNow tracker. On July 23, air quality in Winthrop reached 487 and was the worst in the country, according to the National Weather Service Office in Spokane.

Hazardous air quality means the air is just plain dangerous to breathe for anyone.

“Being outside feels like you lit a thousand cigarettes in a small closet,” said Dean Coe, owner of River Pines Inn in Winthrop.

Walker said residents have been developing health problems including headaches, congestion, coughing and a scratchy throat. Many have left to be with their friends and families in more hospitable locations.

Most of the residents who have stayed don’t have air conditioning, meaning it can be difficult to find respite from the smoke. All shutter their windows and many have air filters, but that can still mean brutally hot indoor conditions during this record-hot summer.

The mental health toll of the wildfires can be just as serious as the physical.

“Some nights when it clears up a bit you can see the flames from your house window,” Bjornsen said. “It’s scary.”

Walker said the wildfires have created a variety of different avenues for residents to experience mental stress, including worrying about flames breaching the town to compulsively checking air quality readings.

“It’s just doing so much destruction to the area,” Coe said. “We’re seeing the natural places we enjoy go up in flames.”

After COVID-19 lockdowns last summer, the situation is giving residents the worst kind of deja vu.

“It feels like this really sad repeat of last summer, but even worse in that everyone feels like they need to hide inside to protect themselves,” Walker said.

The economic effects can’t be understated. Many stores and businesses have simply shut down until conditions improve, including the famous Sun Mountain Lodge in Winthrop.

Those that have stayed open are getting basically no business.

“No one’s been here all day,” said Jacob Wallace, who works the counter at the Mazama Store in Mazama. He said the shop looked gloomy, with the outside tables normally packed with tourists empty and covered in an orange haze.

Some residents acknowledged that the business, mental and physical effects of this year’s wildfire season on the Methow Valley will likely be a regular occurrence going forward.

“There’s a period of warming happening,” Coe said. “We just have to expect wildfires like these now.”

But despite the threat of climate change and its effect on wildfires, none of the residents interviewed is thinking about leaving anytime soon.

Many said they are staying optimistic and that they have channeled their energy into gratitude for the firefighters protecting them and their homes. Some said the collective struggle of getting through fires creates a sense of pride, resiliency and closeness in the community.

“Wildfires make the town not for everyone, but they bring the community closer,” Bjornsen said.

Others are preparing the community to adapt to an even more fiery future. Walker and her organization Clean Air Methow continue to work to better prepare residents for wildfire season through education and advocating for air filters in every home.

“I’m always thinking about how to develop strategies so that we can not just survive, but thrive through climate change,” Walker said.

For now, residents are suffering. But they say they’ll get through these fires, just like they’ve done for wildfire after wildfire for the past 10 years.

“The amazing snow and the river; there’s so many great things we have in this community that make up for the wildfires,” Bjornsen said. “I think it’s the best place in the world.”