I've stumbled for a solid twenty minutes to even find the first word to write, but here I sit in the most darling coffee shop with electricity, a charged laptop and beautifully stained furniture and fresh food. Now let me back up just a few days to last Thursday afternoon at exactly 9 am.
Thursday - 9 am I was sitting casually at work, finishing up my first hour there, and in my "free" time I was tracking the current wildfires and their progress. There were several just powering through the Methow Valley, but nothing that was worth fretting or being concerned about.
10:30 am - My uncle left work early to head home, sending out nothing but a short subject line only email to the office, "Fires getting close to home, have to go."
I casually thought things would be just fine so I stayed at work, going about the every day routine, eating some almonds when I got the call around noon that things weren't looking great. The fire was inching its way towards the heart of the Methow Valley, scorching every pine tree and sagebrush patch in sight. This little fire quickly became a big fire with an even bigger agenda - an agenda that a lot of people had no idea was coming, including me.
By two pm, I left work and drove home from Chelan on hwy 97 through hwy 153 up to my house. It was just beautiful outside, the sun was shining so bright and the homes and trees in the valley were glistening from the sun, almost standing tall with outstretched arms to say, "look at me!" But ten miles north, there was a blazing inferno whispering back without anyone knowing, "I'll be there soon."
I stopped by my house on the way to my extended family's property which is up the Methow Valley about 14 miles, casually checking on things and just dropping some things off. Driving up to my extended family's property was when my life flashed before my eyes and I was suddenly caught in the middle of what felt like a tornado of flames. I saw nothing but orange in my sight.
But then things slowed down and I spent a few solid hours up at what we call the ranch, handing out water bottles to firefighters and emergency personnel who were watching the growing blaze. Within minutes, the fire would hop from acre to acre, eating the land to its bare bones. Around 6pm, I headed back down the valley ten miles south to my house and along the way, things just felt eerie. The fire seemed to be traveling with me, dancing along the mountain tops as it slithered its way down the valley into the heart of Pateros. In my mind my thoughts were racing, "Pateros is totally fine, are you kidding me? It's surrounded by water, the houses are surrounded by green trees, there is orchard cascading down the mountains, it's totally safe."
But an hour went by and the flames just kept blazing faster and faster and my livelihood flashed before my eyes and that's when the panic set in. What do I take. What's important. My family raced through our home tearing photos off the walls and leaving our house in disarray, taking what we thought was important. But in the moment, what is? You care about your family, who is with you. The tangible items just stand there and when something so powerful is forcing its way towards you and you can't fight it, you run.
My family grabbed our things and that's when our extended family arrived and we watched the flames take over the valley. It poured down the mountain like an 800 degree, destructive waterfall. By 8 pm, my family had packed our things and waited. We parked at the top of our driveway and just waited, almost like we were waiting for the flames to just extinguish themselves. But instead, it just kept its agenda.
No evacuation notice. Not a firefighter in sight. The fire came so fast that no one knew. Through the town of Pateros, a few cops were able to shout frantically through their loudspeakers, "Get out now!!!!" But for many, it came so fast that everything had to stay behind - animals, childhoods, memorabilia, photos. It all just had to stay and be strong, but for more than not, the flames were overwhelming. They came through the town with such rage and such force that homes just melted under the heat. For the orchardists, including my family, rows of 200+ apple bins became handfuls of nails. Homes became piles of dust. Cars transformed from reliable to a skeleton of metal.
It destroyed. Catastrophically stripped away the lifestyle that so many had adopted for well...life. Suddenly things that you once took for granted become things you would give so much to have back.
Evacuating Pateros on Thursday night at 8:30 pm, driving down the valley and looking across the river, my entire town looked ablaze. Between the flames and the smoke and the sheer panic of cars racing to beat the flames, the town was completely black. Power poles crashed to the ground and trees toppled over each other. Now those that stand on the mountains are the reminder - the hundreds of little black toothpicks are now the garland on the mountains.
By Friday morning, roads were closed and the fire still burned with fury, no word on whether homes stood or had crumbled, no word on if people were alive or the state of the valley. The only access to get home was via backroads. My family made the trek, of what should have been 20 minutes became an hour and a half. Between the panic of seeing mushroom clouds erupt over our home town and sirens echoing through the insurmountable smoke, we made our way to Pateros to be greeted by the cement foundations of so many homes that once stood, by charred trees that were once a beautiful green, by black hillsides that were once full of wildflowers, by naked orchards that once bore fruit. Words really can't explain the emotions that overcome a person in that situation.
Four days have passed since the night that forever changed so many lives, and the devastation still builds. No one realizes how quickly life can change until it does. How quickly your lifestyle can completely be flipped upside down. You just never anticipate anything so catastrophic to happen until well...it does. It's not like the town of Pateros & community of Alta Lake and the Methow Valley had weekly meetings to prepare for this kind of event. For this kind of chaos. For this kind of emotional trauma and lifestyle change. For the pain and the devastation. It happened so fast. Time flashes before your eyes.
But then you begin to see the beauty. The community stand back up and come together as not just a town but a family. To watch doors open and people flood in with trailer after trailer of water and supplies, generators and food, clothes and cleaning supplies, toys and books for children, is overwhelming.
This morning, walking into the high school in Pateros to rooms filled to the ceiling with clothes and donations just made my eyes well with tears. We are so thankful and so blessed. But this town is heartbroken, there is so much to be cleaned, to be rebuilt. So many don't know where they will lay their head tonight, where they will go to the bathroom tomorrow, what they will eat for breakfast.
Written by: Emily Wall, Lifesong Photography
For more images and posts on the fire, you can read them at www.lifesongphotographyblog.com.