Of Smoke

A moun­tain com­mu­nity in Wash­ing­ton’s Okanogan County uses ski­ing to re­cover from dev­as­tat­ing wild­fires


A moun­tain com­mu­nity in Wash­ing­ton’s Okanogan County uses ski­ing to re­cover from dev­as­tat­ing wild­fires.

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.

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

Burn­ing thick and mov­ing at speeds greater than 60 mph, the fire sounded like a freight train, de­stroy­ing acres of dry tim­ber in min­utes.

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.

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 sum-

“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

mers 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-yearold 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 leg­is­la­tions 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.”


Photo: Ma­son Mashon

Photo: Greg Pet­rics / Skier: Porter Haney Photo: Scott Rinck­en­berger

Set along the Methow River, this val­ley har­bors the ves­tiges of a mid-century tim­ber boom and reg­u­lar wild­fires, which, in ad­di­tion to ski­ing, de­fine the com­mu­nity.

Michael Shaf­fer (above and op­po­site) grew up ski­ing the Loup. He re­cently re­turned home to main­tain the com­mu­nity that turned him into a lifelong skier. Mike Martin (right) lost his home in the 2014 fire. Ski­ing helped him get the feel­ing his life was nor

For the Freaks on the Fringe like Shaf­fer (top left), and ski shop owner Ron Mackie and his son, Dustin, ski­ing is the nu­cleus for the com­mu­nity.

Death by smoke. Life by smoke. Michael Shaf­fer breathes in the good stuff.

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