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In Methow Valley, lessons from past wildfires help with current pandemic

The Methow Valley, near Winthrop, in 2019.
Ed Ronco
The Methow Valley, near Winthrop, in 2019.

Can wildfires prepare you for a pandemic? The mayor of Twisp, in Washington state’s Methow Valley, says they can.

In 2014, the Carlton Complex wildfire burned about 400 square miles near Twisp — an area roughly five times the size of Seattle. Then came the Okanogan Complex of fires the next year, burning some 476 square miles and killing three firefighters and gravely injuring another — a staggering tragedy anywhere, but one that was acutely felt in the small community of about 1,000 residents.

Mayor Soo Ing-Moody told KNKX that her community has used the lessons from those earlier disasters, as COVID-19 cases spread across the state.

As a result of the wildfires, “we were able to establish a long-term recovery organization here in our area,” Ing-Moody said. “That was able to be stood up during the coronavirus outbreak within days. We were able to start addressing issues on the ground during an emergency, as well as looking at long-term recovery needs.”

She says they were especially able to care for Twisp’s significant population of senior citizens. They were able to make contact with people immediately, and start communicating about resources.

“That also helps with anxiety which, we know, that during any type of emergency the level of anxiety continues to grow as the situation worsens or is extended,” Ing-Moody said. “And that is the same here for (coronavirus) as it is for wildfires.”

She said they learned a lot during the wildfires about how communicating can reduce that anxiety and fear.

“More (communication) is better, and proper and consistent and accurate information — as opposed to rumor — is really important during any emergency,” she said. “That’s part of our plan, to step up that information, sharing so people know things are being done on their behalf.”


Soo Ing-Moody, who became mayor of Twisp in 2010, stands in front of blackened trees in the Methow Valley.
Credit Ed Ronco / KNKX
Twisp Mayor Soo Ing-Moody.

The Methow Valley is stunning. Rivers snake through bright green hills, and if the weather is cooperating at sunset, the sky turns bright orange. The natural beauty here, coupled with an abundance of outdoor recreation opportunities, makes Twisp, Winthrop and other local communities a popular place for people to own second homes.

But officials warned people early on that it was a bad idea to go into quarantine at a vacation home, far away from the medical infrastructure of larger cities.  

“The biggest threat people don’t realize is our remoteness. We’re talking about a health emergency. Health care in remote areas, as you can imagine, is compromised,” Ing-Moody said. “We are not close to a facility or facilities that can readily take on surges of patients. We’re asking people here to throttle back on all the activities they do, whether you’re going for a bike ride, or hiking, climbing — whatever it is. There would be a huge problem we would not be able to handle if extra strain were to be put on the health care system here, period.”

The nearest hospital is small, and about 45 minutes away. Ing-Moody says more severe cases would likely need treatment in Seattle, a helicopter flight, or a four-hour drive away. And she says her community is dealing with the same problems most are feeling right now.

“We have the same shortage of PPE here. This health care crisis right now is in every one of our communities and so we’re trying to be as self-reliant as we can be, recognizing and hoping like most other places that we get some of the provisions we need to safely manage this pandemic,” she said. “I wouldn’t say we have what we need, because that’s not true, but we can’t know exactly what all those needs are. We’re doing our best to keep it at bay. We’re hoping for the best and preparing for the worst, with what we’ve got."

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Ed Ronco is a former KNKX producer and reporter and hosted All Things Considered for seven years.