Wildfire preparedness climbs up Twisp mayor's priority list as hills burn year after year
Author's note: One of the best parts of this job is the opportunity to learn new things from smart people. In June, producer Geoffrey Redick and I traveled to Twisp, in the Methow Valley. That’s where we met Mayor Soo Ing-Moody. Her town dealt with large wildfires in 2014 and again in 2015, when three firefighters died. We were looking to Twisp for some lessons learned, for a program we did exploring wildfire danger here in Western Washington. Ing-Moody took us to an overlook along a highway where we talked about how the landscape changed after the fires, the difference between fear and preparation, and how tragedy changes a community and its people. (This story originally aired July 9.)
Soo Ing-Moody became mayor of Twisp in 2010, before wildfires were the new normal.
But she wasn’t new to the impacts they have on communities.
Ing-Moody, as a sociology graduate student in 1998, researched how three years of devastating wildfires affected the people of Mongolia.
“It was kind of an eye-opener in 2014 when our huge wildfire hit,” Ing-Moody said. “It was the first time I ever realized ‘Oh my goodness, I think I’m supposed to be mayor here at this moment in time.’”
And while she applied some of the lessons she learned as an academic in 2014 — and later in 2015 — she realized being mayor is different.
A CHARRED HILLSIDE
From almost anywhere in Twisp, you can get a good view of the low hills that define the Methow Valley.
They roll gently and are covered with grasses and trees, almost like someone threw a soft, green blanket on top of them.
“It’s green right now, but I can say the hillsides were on fire in previous years,” says Soo Ing-Moody, the mayor of Twisp.
Heading south out of town, brown scars interrupt the blanket of green, where part of a hillside gave way. Charred, matchstick-like trees stick up on a ridge, surrounded by bright green, low bushes that are starting to reappear.
These hills burned in 2014.
“We could see houses that were exploding,” Ing-Moody said.
In 2014, the Carlton Complex wildfire burned about 400 square miles near here — an area nearly five times larger than the city of Seattle.
"We could see houses that were exploding."
In 2015, the Twisp River fire dealt a devastating blow to the city, part of the larger Okanogan Complex of fires, which burned roughly 476 square miles. Three local firefighters died, and another was severely burned, when their truck ran off the road and was overcome by fire and smoke. The lives lost that day are still deeply felt in the community, Ing-Moody says.
Both fires were federally declared disasters.
Ing-Moody has lived here since 2000, but it’s only in recent years that major fires have become a regular occurrence. Since 2014, all but one year has seen a major fire near Twisp.
And while Ing-Moody didn’t imagine she’d be dealing with frequent and fierce wildfires, her professional background meant she was prepared.
She studied at the University of Freiberg under J.G. Goldammer, one of Europe’s leading wildfire ecologists.
PROBLEMS ALL OVER
A wildfire brings smoke and flame, but also other problems.
In Twisp, officials struggled with communication. Power lines went down. Cell towers were jammed or useless. Fuel for the tower generators ran out, and fires at the base of the towers prevented refueling trips.
“We ended up having to go door to door to do evacuations in 2015,” Ing-Moody said. “In 2014, I had to find my police chief in the middle of the street to coordinate what we were going to do and what routes were open to even leave the valley.”
In one case, the town needed county approval to declare an emergency and get state aid, but the phone lines and the roads to the county seat in Okanogan were both unusable. The governor and his staff happened to be in town, so Twisp officials were able to go straight to the top — but without that, they would have had big problems.
"Whenever there's smoke or fire in the area, everyone's aware of it now. We all know we have responsibility."
Twisp has built a communications plan since then, including a better phone alert system. They’ve also developed a program to map neighborhoods to help vulnerable people who might not easily be able to leave in the event of an evacuation. There are leaders appointed in neighborhoods to help coordinate response efforts.
Prevention efforts include teaching property owners how to clear fire-fueling brush from the areas around their homes, in order to prevent flames from reaching structures.
And then there’s just the memory of what’s come before.
“Whenever there’s smoke or fire in the area, everyone’s aware of it now,” Ing-Moody said. “We all know we have responsibility.”
PREPARATION ISN’T FEAR
As last year’s deadly Camp Fire in California grew, Ing-Moody was about 450 miles south in Los Angeles, watching other mayors deal with the crisis at the National League of Cities conference.
She knew she was far from danger, but she still went up to her room and packed.
“You never know when an airport is going to close,” she said.
Overprepared? Maybe. But preparation is a habit now.
"Fear is very reactionary and preparedness means you're actually getting yourself ready in the event, God forbid, that something happened."
And Ing-Moody says one of the things she’s learned from the 2014 and 2015 wildfires is that fear and preparedness are two separate things.
“Fear is very reactionary and preparedness means you’re actually getting yourself ready in the event, God forbid, that something happened,” she said.
Ing-Moody says that attitude has spread in her community — people are prepared, and maybe operating with some heightened awareness when the smell of smoke is in the air, but they’re going about their lives.
“It’s not about closing up shop,” Ing-Moody said. “It doesn’t mean humans are bad and we shouldn’t be here. It does mean, though, that we have a responsibility, and we do have to be mindful of how we manage the systems we live in, and help each other make sure that we stay on track.”
That means stronger communications systems and plans for neighborhoods, sure, but it also means developing within the community a sense of mutual responsibility, whether it’s clearing out the fire fuel from the land around your house, or just looking in on a next-door neighbor when the smell of smoke is in the air.