Ron Mackie couldn't take it anymore. From his home in Omak, Washington, he'd seen temperatures rise into triple digits, felt the hot, dry winds kick up every afternoon, and, despite the armada of U.S. Forest Service aircraft buzzing about, watched as the gray wall on the horizon stacked higher and higher into the sky.
Under that ominous smoke, four separate fires had combined into a single firestorm known as the Carlton Complex Fire ("complex" designates a series of fires coming together), burning 123,000 acres--twice the size of Seattle--in the previous nine hours.
Somewhere near the edge of the inferno, and 25 miles from Mackie's front door, was Loup Loup Ski Bowl, the community ski area to which he had dedicated his last 46 years. Though the fire was spreading quickly over the hills of Okanogan County, in Central Washington, news of its steady march was not. The blaze had split the state's largest county in half, and as uncertainty and dread curdled in his stomach, Mackie couldn't wait any longer.
Jumping on his motorcycle, he ignored his wife's pleas to stay put and powered toward the flames.
"I needed to know," he said. "I needed to know if the Loup was still there."
Fire personnel had closed the main roads heading toward Loup Loup Pass, but Mackie navigated around the blockade on dirt roads. When he finally did run into fire crews, he argued his way through--turning back wasn't an option.
Burning thick and moving at speeds greater than 60 mph, the fire sounded like a freight train, destroying acres of dry timber in minutes.
An eerie calm settled over the last empty stretch of Highway 20--the famous highway running over the pass and through North Cascades National Park. The familiar ashy stink crept into Mackie's helmet, but the flames were still somewhere over the approaching ridgeline. Burning thick and moving at speeds greater than 60 mph, the fire sounded like a freight train, destroying acres of dry timber in minutes. He knew it could be less than an hour before the fire reached the top of 5,375-foot Little Buck Mountain and descended on Loup Loup.
From ski shop owner, to marketing manager, to volunteer board member, the 63-year-old has done everything he could to keep the nonprofit ski hill running over the last four decades. Mackie understood how essential Loup Loup was to this county. He would do anything to keep it alive. Now that meant fighting the largest fire the area had ever seen.
Rounding the corner into the parking lot, Mackie found nearly 100 U.S. Forest Service and local personnel already engaged in battle. Firefighters sprayed down every structure, digging fire lines around the base lodge, ticket office, rental shop, and machine shed. A separate force had assembled on top of the mountain to protect the area's 10 trails, ski patrol hut, and the radio tower transmitting between the Methow and Okanogan valleys.
Amid the chaos, Mackie found Al McKinney, Loup Loup's operations manager. Like Mackie, he'd squeezed through the blockade in hopes of protecting the ski area from the approaching flames.
"Is that you?" yelled McKinney. "C'mon, let's go!"
They each fired up a snow cat and started pushing dirt, trenching out fire lines before moving the equipment to safer ground.
The rush of burning forest crept to the tip of Volunteer, a trail Mackie and McKinney had helped cut back in the '90s, but as the fire whipped toward Loup Loup, a gusting westerly wind shifted south, and the flames followed suit. The fire scorching the earth beneath the summit lift shack suddenly pivoted down valley toward the town of Pateros. The ski hill was singed, but it survived.
With the fire redirecting its destruction away from Loup Loup, Mackie and McKinney knew it was a small victory. The community ski area was safe for now, but what about the community itself? As the fire spread and ripped apart the county, Loup Loup's survival felt like the tiniest of silver linings, but once the fires receded, they had no idea how vital their ski hill would be in bringing the community together again.
In the weeks following, the 2014 Carlton Complex Fire would become the largest wildfire in Washington state history, burning over 250,000 acres, leveling 553 houses, barns, and cabins, and inflicting $29.5 million in damage.
That's still a small fraction of the $5.1 billion in damages caused by wildfires in the U.S. from 2006 to 2016, according to the 2017 Verisk Wildfire Risk Analysis (a tally that doesn't include the estimated $3 billion-plus in damages from the 2017 Northern California wildfires). The U.S. Forest Service has invested over $15 billion into battling blazes over that time--almost double its costs over the previous 10-year period--and has watched a 1,200 percent rise in U.S. forest area burn over the last 40 years, due in large part to rising temperatures and prolonged droughts in the American West.
"Loup Loup makes a community out of a county that doesn't get to see each other very often. It helps draw all of these people into one place." --Carlene Anders
Wildfires consistently threaten rural areas like Okanogan County, and, in recent years, have also devastated habitat around ski towns like Bend, Oregon; South Lake Tahoe, California; Breckenridge, Colorado; and Ketchum, Idaho. In 2013, the Beaver Creek Fire forced nearly 1,600 Sun Valley and Ketchum residents to evacuate, while a 2017 blaze nearly made it to the lifts at Breckenridge. With fire season lengthening two-plus months a year and U.S. Forest Service budget (and subsequent resources of fire suppression) at risk of a $300 million cut in 2018 by the Trump administration, massive wildfires are an increasingly persistent mountain town threat.
Driving toward Twisp last March, skeletons of evergreen groves line Highway 20. Three years after the Carlton Complex Fire, and the town is still putting the pieces back into place. The parking lot at Hank's Harvest Market is nearly full, and across the street, the Methow Valley News and radio station KTRT are organizing their weekly local news. They hope the next fire doesn't come anytime soon, but they know it is just a spark away. That's why their campus has a new emergency generator--one of four installed in town since 2014--to keep communication flowing up and down the valley of 5,000 if the hills again catch fire. Those hills make Twisp and the surrounding Methow a desireable place to be, but their scars remind residents that they live on the edge of disaster.
Carving through the eastern shadow of Washington's Cascade Range, the Methow Valley sits deep in the belly of the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. Three roads connect pockets of post offices and general stores to the outside world, but when winter closes Highway 20 from the north, this is the outer edge of society. Set along the Methow River, the towns of Twisp, Carlton, Mazama, and Winthrop are the vestiges of a mid-century timber boom full of loggers, park rangers, and disenchanted Baby Boomers that once sought peace away from city limits. Today, health food stores neighbor $5 burgers and bingo at the Eagles Club in this forgotten valley of glacial rivers and ponderosa pine.
It's that isolated beauty that convinced Karen Shaffer to raise a family in the Methow Valley. Disillusioned by the Vietnam War, Shaffer, now 74 years old, and her fighter pilot husband, Terry, 78, joined a group of families from Southern California on 240 acres outside of Twisp in the early '70s. Terry continued his work as a pilot but helped the group of young families start a Christian commune, building a group of cabins and creating a slice of utopia in the Cascade foothills.
"At that time, other people were measuring value in how much money you had, and I didn't want to extend that to our kids," says Shaffer. "I wanted them to be more about people and less about things...Everyone we knew was like that. They were our example."
Her son, Michael "Bird" Shaffer, came of age in the mountains around their house, hiking, riding dirt bikes, and, together with a pair of Lithuanian brothers in the commune, learning to ski. Shaffer says she didn't have enough money to get her son into a race program, but that didn't stop Michael from skiing hand-me-down gear on the hill out their front door and building road gap jumps with the community's heavy machinery.
In high school, he started taking the school ski bus 25 minutes up to Loup Loup every Saturday, spinning GS laps like his heroes, fellow Central Washington residents Steve and Phil Mahre.
Loup Loup had three rope tows and a handful of trails like Bulldog, the local mogul skier's rite of passage. Founded in 1958 by a group of volunteers, "The Loup" was also home to the only full ski school within 100 miles, and buses from around Okanagon County delivered students to the ski hill all winter long.
"Loup Loup makes a community out of a county that doesn't get to see each other very often," says Carlene Anders, Loup Loup's former ski school director for 17 years and the current mayor of Pateros. "It helps draw all of these people into one place."
Now a 501c3 nonprofit, Loup Loup offers 1,240 vertical feet of skiing over 300 acres with a $389 season pass and relies on that local support, as well as a community-appointed board of directors, to keep the ski hill running--hosting annual fundraisers and volunteer days for trail cutting and brush thinning.
When Mackie wanted to bring the first chairlift to Loup Loup in 1998, it was local welders, concrete pourers, and metal workers that donated their time and services to get the quad installed before the snow fell (it remains the area's only non-surface lift).
"Everyone has their home area, but this area is more so because everyone has been involved," says Mackie. "We all have a love for what this mountain represents."
While Michael Shaffer grew out of Loup Loup after high school, seeking first descents on Mount Rainier and spending over a decade honing his craft on the steeps of Chamonix, he returned to Twisp for good in 2014. Between working summers on Washington wildfire crews and chasing winter around the world, Shaffer, now 45, craved the simplicity of the Methow.
He had made a name for himself in steep skiing circles and had helped bring Chamonix's Black Crows skis to the U.S., but, taking over his parents' old cabin on the commune--which has relaxed its religious devotions as new generations take over--he saw new life in the hills of his childhood.
A 40-minute skin from his family's access road, a ridgeline snakes toward the North Cascades. Stuck somewhere between the wet, wintry Cascades and the rain shadow of Eastern Washington, this fin of steppe and pine is blessed by cold, dry desert air and Pacific moisture, creating a short January and February window of what Shaffer calls "desert pow."
"When it's good to ski to the valley floor, you can ski anywhere," says Michael "Yogi" Martin, a former Stevens Pass ski patroller now residing in the nearby town of Carlton.
Martin and Shaffer are part of a tight Methow backcountry community Shaffer calls the "Freaks on the Fringe." A mix of born-here locals and jaded ex-Westsiders, they value their solitude almost as much as their skiing, making Loup Loup their low-key, lift-serviced home base. When conditions permit, they spend the rest of their days skinning up nearby Washington Pass. As Seattle ski crowds migrate farther east, they have found more and more turns in the intricacies of their own valley.
"I think the Methow grows our own type of weird," says fellow Freak and Shaffer's childhood friend Jeremy "Jerr Bear" Hamel. "The ones who can't handle it move on or move away."
Hamel was one that never could. Raised in the Methow, he tried Bend for a winter, but it didn't stick. Now 44, he skis the valley or heads 25 minutes north to Washington Pass four days a week, and has had a season's pass at Loup Loup every year since the seventh grade. The Loup is where he and Shaffer became friends in high school, and where, decades later, the two met Martin, who was working as a volunteer ski patroller.
The Methow's isolation comes at a price. The area offers a chance to experience the untamed beauty of nature, but it also puts residents on the frontline of an exposed environment.
The same landscape the Freaks love in the winter has a stark contrast come summer. Like a lot of mountain towns, funneled creek drainages, coupled with extended heat waves and less than two inches of average summer precipitation make the area a natural hotspot for wildfire. In the past two decades, the valley has lit up over a dozen times. Nearly every hillside bears a burn wound.
Fighting fire is a way of life for most in the region. Both Shaffer and Anders are part of the professional and volunteer crews tasked with protecting their own communities and terrain. But while the firefighters have been trained for wildfire, nothing could have prepared the community for the summer of 2014. Over two weeks, the fire torched an area one and a half times the size of New York City. Twisp lost nearly 10 percent of its houses. Pateros lost more than half of its homes in a matter of hours. Even the town's water tanks were scorched, leaving residents without potable water for three days.
A week later, the rains came. With no vegetation to hold them back, mudslides took more homes, followed by a dust storm that destroyed fields and leveled fences. In a little over a month, Washington's second poorest county wracked up nearly $30 million in damages.
Martin's home was one of 312 destroyed in the 2014 fires. Almost half of those structures were uninsured, leaving many with nothing and nowhere to go. Neighbors offered couches and tents to the displaced.
That fall, Mackie saw the impact in his Twisp ski shop.
"They wanted to go skiing again, to get that part of their life back," says the ski shop owner, who moved his Loup Loup Ski Rental Shop from the mountain down to Twisp nine years ago. "So we'd get them whatever it took to get them up there again. It helps to heal."
He did what he could, offering vouchers to families affected by the disaster. Eventually, he started lending out skis, boots, and poles free of charge.
"I had people come in that needed everything--it was all gone," says Mackie. "One year you might get a new pair of boots, but this--this was everything."
Had Loup Loup burned, Anders thinks it may have struggled to operate again. As a nonprofit, she says the mountain could barely afford a new lodge, much less an entire ski hill. Hundreds of local skiers would have to drive over two hours just to find a chairlift. In a community already short on resources, most would give up the sport entirely.
"It would have been absolutely tragic," she says. "I have to believe it wouldn't have been rebuilt."
But as winter rounded the corner, skiing became one of the few bright spots on an otherwise barren horizon. Amid burned shells of ponderosa and lodgepole pine, Loup Loup spun its bullwheel that season, and, despite a low snow year, provided a momentary distraction for a devastated community.
Thanks to contributions at the area's annual fundraiser, the Loup started the Fire and Ice program, providing families that lost houses in the fire with free rentals, lessons, and skiing for the entire season.
"It felt like skiing got us back to normal," says Martin.
Then, in August 2015, the fires came back.
While trying to save houses in the area, three firefighters died in the flames. The youngest, 20-year-old Tommy Zbyszewski, grew up near Martin's home in Carlton.
Mackie fights tears remembering a grade school Zbyszewski running around his shop in ski boots. Anders had given Zbyszewski his first ski lessons and had worked fires with his father, Richard "Ski" Zbyszewski. Days after the tragedy, she was left to console her own daughter, who was also a local firefighter nearly Zbyszewski's age.
As the executive director of the Okanogan Long Term Recovery Group, Anders has helped rebuild over a dozen uninsured homes, advocated state and national legislation for disaster policy changes, and filled in the financial gaps left by federal relief efforts. The 51-year-old has put ski instructing on hold, but says it's the relationships she formed over thousands of lessons at Loup Loup that have connected her to each town in the region.
For its part, Loup Loup doubled down on its Fire and Ice program, reaching out to a new group of victims and extending the program another two years after the 2015 fires. That fall, the mountain invited volunteers to cut back brush and remove natural fuel that could supply future blazes, a tradition that has continued since.
Still, progress in the valley has been slow. Disaster experts estimate it takes 10 years for a victim of a fire to get back to their economic levels before the disaster.
Skiing at the Loup has been essential for the valley to reconnect with its identity. A familiar place and a familiar feeling serve as reminders of the way things should be.
When the snow returned in 2016, so did the skiers, and Loup Loup reported one of its best holiday seasons in a decade. A year later, pass sales were on level with ski seasons before the fires.
On a cloudy Saturday morning in the Methow, cow bells clank at the bottom of Loup Loup's Volunteer Chair. A guy in jeans and a neon hunting hat races uphill after getting the tag from a skier dressed in a pink tutu. This is the Challenge Cup, the Loup's annual slalom ski, inner tube, and cross-country ski triathlon. A record 19 teams are competing--some are groups of friends, others three generations of Loup Loup skiers.
For years, the community had fought to keep Loup Loup running, now, more than ever, they find sanctuary in costumed triathlons and lodge-cooked chili cheese fries.
"This place is part of you, it's not just something you do," says Anders.
The snow on the top of Loup Loup squeaks under our feet--pressed, scoured, and shaped by wind that now washes freely over the hillside. The pines charged with protecting this crest stand charred and barren, quiet sentinels marking the farthest advance of the flames.
Beyond them, fires have defeathered miles of hillside down to Pateros. Below Jerr Bear Hamel and me--more burned forest, and 1,600 feet of a different kind of smoke.
Dropping toward the Methow Valley, wind-freeze gives way to feathery contrails that illuminate in the early morning sun. The fire has stripped away branches and underbrush, leaving a steep fall line of perfectly spaced trees. Hamel's turns are strong, short, and deliberate, the product of a born-again bump skier.
Without any pine needles to hold or drop snow, the burn skis impossibly smooth, interrupted only by the long, straight shadows of the dead.
It's at once tragic and peaceful--a graveyard wrapped in alpine deliverance.
For Hamel, the fire has given this zone a second coming. He'd skied these trees for years, but after the smoke cleared, he returned to find his run trimmed, smooth, and, just as it had been year after year, empty.
I ask if the string of natural disasters were enough to make him reconsider his life in the valley. He shakes his head. "[Fire] is something we've lived with our whole lives," he says.
Like the region's lodgepole pines that rely on ash winds to deposit new seeds, or the local Chinook and steelhead that use fire debris to lay their eggs in the Methow, the people here have chosen to endure and adapt.
"It's not easy...but people wouldn't live here if it wasn't worth it," says Anders. "The outdoors gives us so much life."