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Smoke 'Lumbers In Like A Wayward Drunk'

Don Nelson, the editor-owner of the Methow Valley News, with the Methow Valley in the background. The fires this season are the biggest on record in Washington state.
Courtesy of Don Nelson
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Don Nelson, the editor-owner of the Methow Valley News, with the Methow Valley in the background. The fires this season are the biggest on record in Washington state.

Driving back to the cabin last night, I encountered almost no traffic on Highway 20 between Twisp and Winthrop. 

It is a Sunday night in August, the heart of what has been a record year for tourism here, Labor Day and the rodeo coming up, and the RVs, motorcycles and station wagons with fully laden bike racks are somewhere else that has not been evacuated or cut off from its main flow of visitors. Even Sheri’s Sweet Shoppe, which would usually be hopping with people loading up two – no, make that three – scoops of home-made ice cream onto a delicate waffle cone is closed and quiet.

But it’s the light that I notice. Usually, at this time of day, the last rays of summer sunshine splash around the hills like fluorescent paint flung from a giant bucket, a different décor every night. But this night, there is only smoke, graywashing the landscape in every direction, absorbing the light like one of those cosmic black holes.

We get lots of fog here. Smoke is not like fog. Smoke smells, like a campfire that won’t go out. Fog is meteorological, smoke is cataclysmic. Somewhere, enough stuff is burning to fill the entire Methow Valley, and the Chewuch River valley as well, with a cloying layer of what used to be trees and brush and other such organic matter.

The smoke is our forests and shrub steppe hillsides, rearranged into a different particulate form. I wonder, if you could weigh all the smoke, would it weigh as much as the stuff that fire transformed? I’m sure there is a scientific answer having to do with moisture and other factors that will make me feel stupid.

Smoke does not creep in on little cat’s feet. It lumbers in like a wayward drunk, as if owned the place, and dares you to bounce it. There is enough breeze to blow it in here, but not enough wind to blow it back out. We wait for it to take its hangover elsewhere.

Fog creates an atmosphere, smoke invokes anxiety. When the fog clears, you pretty much know what you’re going to see. When the smoke clears, you’re not sure what you’ll be looking at, but are expecting that it won’t be pleasant. Fog is dank and chilly, smoke is dry and raspy, sandpaper on your breathing apparatus.

I spent this smoky day in the office, where we blessedly have electricity and are well aware of how much easier it is to put out a newspaper with the power on. Several other staffers were in as well – on a Sunday, and some of them had been there all day Saturday as well – because there is much to do, and we must do it in these moments.

I honestly feel a bit overwhelmed by it at times, but I look around me and I know that my staff members are here for the same reason I am, to serve this deserving community when it needs us most, and my mission focus sharpens right up.

I look at our Facebook metrics – squishy indicators to be sure, but offering some value – and note that in the past week we have reached a potential audience of more than half a million with our posts, and that our individual “likes” have increased by more than 2,000 this week. Sometime soon the “like” count will triple our print circulation.

I don’t know what to make of this social media phenomenon, or how to answer the questions about “monetizing” it. I just know that people appreciate our effort, because they tell me so in coffee shops, gas stations, grocery stores and on the street. When I was in Wenatchee to buy a generator, I was in Target doing some shopping and ran into a Methow Valley evacuee who thanked me for keeping her family informed.

During last year’s disasters, I told my staff that we were going to own the story, and we did. Still, it’s a bit intimidating to see the thousands of words and hours of video being generated about what has happened here, distributed to audiences all over the world, much of it produced by people I know. How do we compete with that? We don’t.

They will come and then leave to cover other stories, and we will still be here to tell the ongoing narrative of our community. We know what to do, and we will not lose our way in the smoke.

Don Nelson is the publisher and owner of the Methow Valley News. His reporters haven't missed a beat covering the wildfires that have ravaged their valley. You can see more at the MVN's website and on Facebook