Frank Rogers looks through his aviator sunglasses, drags off a cigarette and points.
"On this one here, people really should have died," he says. "We just got lucky."
The Okanogan County Sheriff isn't being inflammatory or hyperbolic — just realistic and thankful.
The mound of rocks, mud and debris he's pointing at is what's left of a 2-mile section of Chiliwist Road outside Malott, Washington, about 12 miles southwest of Omak. The people who "should" have died aren't some theoretical homeowners or drivers. Rather, it's him.
Two days earlier, on Thursday, Aug. 21, Rogers and a deputy were driving down the road toward Malott. It's part of their patrol area since the massive Carlton Complex Fire destroyed numerous homes up the Chiliwist Valley in July. Strong thunderstorms moving through the county dumped torrential rain on the burn area.
With fire suppression efforts still ongoing, higher humidity and rain would normally be welcome relief. But in a burn area — particularly one as widespread as the 256,000 acres of the Carlton Complex Fire — so much rain can cause secondary disasters, namely mudslides and flash floods.
As Rogers was driving in the storm that night, an estimated 10 houses were destroyed or damaged along Highway 153 near Carlton — the namesake of the now-largest wildfire in state history.
That includes the home of Bob Elk Belgard and Janie Lewis. They were at home Thursday night as torrents of mud raced down Leecher Creek, tearing across Highway 153. The only thing standing between the mudslide and the Methow River: their home and shop. Miraculously, they were unharmed, but their property is a complete loss. Their house had survived the Carlton Complex Fire that destroyed an estimated 300 other homes in the county. But then the rain came.
It's become a joke of sorts in the area that God or karma or whatever force is causing all of this isn't done. After all, doesn't bad news come in threes?
Ask residents and they all have their humorous responses. Plague of locusts is a particularly popular biblical reference, although raining frogs and even zombies make the list.
"I think it'll be gaggle of crocodiles," says Jeff Lyman, without a real hint of sarcasm or even a smirk. It's as if people in the Methow Valley and east to the Okanogan region have had to deal with so much this summer, they consider nothing impossible at this point.
Lyman, who owns the Carlton General Store and gas station, remains good-humored. With the fires and now the mudslides closing Highway 153, his customer base of tourists has been noticeably absent this summer. Typically, he estimates, 60 percent of yearly sales come in July and August.
"It's been suck-ass business. It's been pretty bad. I don't want to sugarcoat it," he says, though firefighters coming through for drinks and snacks have helped sales.
Every community has its season of hardship and harsh weather that gets remembered decades later. Spokane and Inland Northwest residents remember Firestorm '91 and Ice Storm '96.
For the Methow Valley, it used to be the floods of 1948, still talked about more than 60 years later.
"Now it's the summer of 2014," says Mary Lou McCollum, a local artist.
Open for business
Up and down the valley, businesses from hotels to art galleries to organic produce stands at farmers markets reflect the same sentiment.
On Saturday, two days after the mudslides, the farmers market in Twisp is in full swing. It's almost hard to tell the previous six weeks have been anything but a normal summer. No smoke is detectable; there's a bright, blue sky, and the smell of kettle corn and fresh-made elephant ears hangs in the air. It's a full market, with the regular eclectic mix of locals, tourists, cyclists and backpackers coming off the trail from a few days removed from the cares of the world.
But mixed among the crowd and vendor tents is a reminder of what makes this summer stand out: a large 4-by-5-foot billboard is plastered with fire information. Inside the Methow Valley Community Center, the senior center thrift shop gives away free household items for fire victims — and now mudslide victims.
Amy Wu is a regular farmers market vendor, selling produce from her roadside fruit stand, Rest Awhile Country Market, down Highway 153 in Pateros. Her business and sales have taken a hit. She wants more people to realize the area is open for business. News reports, she says, have probably kept people away with so many road closures this summer.
"Tell people to come through," she says, turning to cut and hand out fresh peach slices to walkers-by.
The coming spring
Nearby at the Cinnamon Twisp Bakery, the Saturday lunch crowd is pouring in, a crowd that just a month earlier was nonexistent. When fires knocked out power to the area for more than a week, businesses without generators had to close. The bakery was on the brink of laying off some of its 12 full-time summer employees when power came back and tourists — ever so slowly — began to return.
"This is definitely a summer that will be etched in everyone's memory," says Dara Farmer, a bakery employee. She's looking forward to a vacation in November, when the bakery will close for two weeks ahead of the typically busy ski season in the valley.
Sheriff Frank Rogers is looking forward to some time off, too, something he and his deputies haven't had most of the summer. He'll be fishing and hunting — he hopes — come fall. But he knows the county isn't out of the proverbial woods yet. All the bare ground left after the fires burned so much vegetation is an invitation for more flash floods and mudslides.
"I'm afraid of what spring might bring," he says. ♦