After the wildfires: Reports from the road.

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WINTHROP, Okanogan County — When I was a kid, my family moved from Seattle to Alabama for a few years. Alabama has tornadoes, and anytime a bad tornado struck anywhere in the South, it seemed that relatives from Seattle would be on the phone to be sure we survived.

“Well, yes, Auntie, because that tornado was actually in Arkansas,” was the typical answer.

It’s a bit like that in the Methow Valley right now. A lot of people around the state heard about the bad fires last month – and they were terrible at the time, no one will minimize that – but some folks assume the whole region should be avoided now.

Diane Childs, co-owner of Winthrop Mountain Sports, shakes her head.

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“We had some people in yesterday who said they thought, ‘We should wait (before visiting the Methow Valley), we shouldn’t clog the roads for emergency vehicles,’” Childs said. “I say, ‘The roads are empty, come on over!’ ”

The rush of emergency vehicles pretty much ended before Labor Day, and though Winthrop was evacuated, the wildfires were contained miles from town. The only charring most visitors will see, if they come over the North Cascades Highway, will be in the mountains near Newhalem. Fed up with freeway closures for visiting foreign dignitaries? Looking to get away to a laid-back place with pristine autumn weather (a bracing 35 degrees Wednesday morning, then 74 delicious degrees by 4 p.m.)? Winthrop is open for business.

“It’s very important, that’s our biggest call,” Winthrop Mayor Sue Langdalen said over coffee at Rocking Horse Bakery after stepping in with a slight shiver from the sunny, chilly morning as the first day of autumn made itself felt. “Yes, we were evacuated for – what, two or three days? Time got away from me – but we need to get the word out that we are open and we’ve had beautiful weather all month.”

How close did the fires get? I got a detailed map of the burn area from Mike Liu, chief ranger for the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest’s Methow Valley Ranger District.

Using the mileage scale on that map, and backing it up with the distance-measuring tool on Google Maps, I calculated that the nearest burn line was 4.25 miles southwest of Winthrop’s main downtown intersection.

OK, that was too close for comfort last month when winds were howling and fire was moving like a semi-truck with no brakes. But to give some perspective: 4.25 miles is the same distance as from Seattle’s Pike Place Market to Mercer Island. And between Winthrop and the burn area, some big hills block the view.

How’s morale in town, after two big fire seasons in a row?

Langdalen sets her jaw and squints. “We’re a tough bunch up here. Everybody’s gung-ho; we’re still going.”

“In the valley, we stand behind each other,” said Steve Mitchell, Rocking Horse’s proprietor, who said his September business matches last year. “Now we’re just waiting for snow” – the next lure to money-spending tourists.

Nonetheless, the triple whammy of heat, wind and fire took its toll on locals.

“I’ve never been scared up here,” said Langdalen, who moved to Winthrop 35 years ago from Seattle. “But this year I felt threatened.”

In the window of Winthrop Mountain Sports, a sign and a purple ribbon express appreciation for fallen firefighters. (Brian J. Cantwell / The Seattle Times)
In the window of Winthrop Mountain Sports, a sign and a purple ribbon express appreciation for fallen firefighters. (Brian J. Cantwell / The Seattle Times)

That probably had to do with the loss of three young firefighters who died in the blaze near Twisp last month, she speculated. Purple ribbons of mourning still hang on Winthrop storefronts.

For James DeSalvo, executive director of Methow Trails, which oversees the valley’s elaborate system of ski and hiking trails, the repeated years of fire have helped him prioritize what to take along when the evacuation threat comes.

The first time, his family loaded a truck. The second time, they gathered boxes of prized photos and kids’ toys. “Now it’s down to a memory card (with photos and documents) and our passports, things that really can’t be replaced,” he said.

For locals dependent on visitor dollars, DeSalvo said, “the challenge is the ability to communicate what’s actually happening here.”

“This is the time to book your trip,” he added, looking at the rushing Chewuch River sparkling in autumn sun outside his office window. “It will be amazing when you get here.”

He might have given a big hug to a couple I met hours later on a Methow Trails path up Patterson Mountain, south of Winthrop. Bill and Norma Miers, visiting from Bellingham, told me they had almost gone elsewhere for a getaway trip.

“We thought we’d go to the Oregon Coast, but then we realized these folks need the support,” Bill Miers said. “If you buy a T-shirt here or just sit and have lunch, you’re helping out.”

NEXT: What Methow Valley trails are open and what trails are closed.