A small peek into just one of hundreds of lives affected by the Carlton Complex Fire
By Carlene Anders
Pateros and Douglas-Okanogan Fire District #15 Volunteer Fire Fighter &
Executive Director of the Brewster-Pateros Long Term Recovery Organization
It is 1:17 am. As I sit in front of my computer looking over the pictures in my daughter’s Facebook album, tears roll down my cheeks. Picture after picture of that week and the aftermath of the Carlton Complex Fire, bring back the emotion and fear I felt for the people of our community. People whom I grew up with, worked with, played with, visited with, shared with and even fought with. It is our town, the town of Pateros. It has been 90 days from the lightening storm that caused so many of our lives to change. I see endless pictures of the fire in my head. I had no time to take pictures that week.
The images of the home I grew up in, my Mom’s home of 36 years, haunt my mind. I work hard not to do the “would have, could have, should have” voice that narrates through my mental videos. It is difficult to keep it at bay. What a beautiful home it was. However . . . I was a volunteer firefighter doing her job. I could not be everywhere. My family was on their own.
Today I ran into a resident from up valley chatting about her outbuilding losses. I was asking her how she fared and if she was ok. Flippantly she said, not even knowing that I was a firefighter, “Where were the firefighters anyway … protecting their own homes I’m sure”. I could feel my back start to go up. Four of our twelve volunteer firefighters who fought so hard that week (from the Pateros Station), lost their homes. They lost their homes because they were defending others properties, at the front of the fire, where the largest damages were being done and where, if not stopped, would have consumed double or triple the homes. What a cost for loyal community service. What ignorance and selfishness for someone to even think that these volunteers are anything but heroes.
Ash still clings to the spider webs on my home. I have not had the time to even clean them up. Last week my vehicle began to choke on the way to speak at a fundraiser for the fire survivors. The air filter suffocated by ash. The appliances in our home that were damaged due to the low voltage and outage were repaired last week as well. Finally an end to the endless weeks of hanging clothes up to dry. There are no complaints. The survivor’s guilt kicks in occasionally, as I feel for my two trusted employees who lost their homes. They give of themselves, beyond belief, on a daily basis. We run a pre-school and daycare and closed only one day, Friday July 18th. The workload for everyone here has increased. Every person in this community was affected.
Only days ago, I was sitting around a large campfire for the Pateros 6th Grade Outdoor Education campout. I asked for a show of hands for how many of these vibrant, young students were “here” during the fire. A wave of hands arose. It was easier to ask how many weren’t there. Three. Only three out of twenty-one weren’t in town at the time of the fire. I asked “where were you, what did it sound like, what did it look like, what did it smell like, what did it feel like”. Streams of descriptive monologues flowed from their mouths, minds and hearts. They needed to share. It sounded similar to the older generations talking about the day Kennedy was shot. They knew what they were eating, what they were wearing, what they were doing, and most of all . . . how they felt. Three of them no longer had homes. Luckily for the two living in travel trailers and churches, they recently moved into new homes, different homes, in the nearby town of Brewster. At least they wouldn’t have to weather the winter in a trailer. They smiled, participated, and celebrated their outdoor experience. The group campsite was one of the few areas in Alta Lake State Park that didn’t burn. The charred surroundings and downed trees were eclipsed by the remaining shrubbery and trees, a small piece of normalcy in a blackened world. Over 500 burned trees had been removed from Alta Lake during the past few weeks.
Winter is coming. We are not ready. The fear of moisture is not typical. It used to be a blessing. Over the last 90 days we have had only three major rain showers. All three resulted in highway closures due to mudslides. What is our future in this regard? We can only be “ready” for the next axe to fall and hope and pray that there is no further damage.
With the encroaching winter months, comes the panic to get things done. Hundreds of miles of fence line destroyed. Nearly thirty home sites still covered in debris. Only half of the personal snowplow and snow blowing equipment normally used for our three feet of snowfall still remain. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder has settled in like a blanket of fog that progressively reveals itself in greater intensity. Mothers sit around the table talking of their children’s increasing nightmares and of the couples that have split up since the fire. It is not just mental effects but physical as well. Many of our elderly have had heart attacks and strokes. All acquaintances.
There has not been one night that I don’t wake up thinking about the fire and the long term recovery that will be necessary to put our communities back on their feet.
As I move ahead in assisting with that recovery for the communities of Pateros, Brewster and Methow, I bear a heavy weight on my shoulders. I want to embrace every resource and opportunity to assist those who have lost so much. The process has only just begun and the need is still great. Contrary to what many believe, we have not yet rebuilt and we are not back to normal. Though we have been blessed with had a great deal of help and assistance to date, we will need help throughout the years to come. We will rebuild. Please don’t forget us.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Carlene Anders grew up in the lower Methow and was a graduate of Pateros High School. She started fighting fire with the Department of Natural Resources in 1984 and then moved on to forest fires with the US Forest Service. She was one of two women who were the first women to smokejump in the State of Washington at NCNB (North Cascades Smokejumper Base). She has been a volunteer fire fighter for both the Methow and Pateros Fire Halls for a total of 12 years. Carlene has a bachelor’s degree in Recreation from the Department of Physical Education, Sport and Leisure Studies at WSU in Pullman. In the early 90’s she taught P.E. at Pateros High School and when her daughter was born, started a preschool and daycare so she could stay at home with her kids. She and her husband of 26 years, Gene Dowers, have two children, Jessi and Danny. Their 18 year old daughter, Jessi, was also a volunteer firefighter who fought on the first engine attacking the flames in the town of Pateros. She is currently a freshman in Architecture at Montana State University in Bozeman. Their son Danny is a 5th grader in Pateros Elementary School. In addition, Carlene has been the head Track and Field coach at Pateros High School for over 20 years and the Ski School Director for the Loup Loup Ski Area for 17 years (retired this February).