Many people have left the area because of evacuation orders. Those who stayed behind are taking in the scene and getting to know each other.
CLE ELUM, Kittitas County — Everything here has burned at some point.
Now, all three towns are on alert as the Jolly Mountain fire sends pillows of smoke floating down from the mountains to the north.
In Roslyn, a layer of haze left the town sleepier than usual, even for a Wednesday.
A handful of regulars sat at The Brick, with a trickle of water at their feet running in the 25-foot metal spittoon. As Washington’s oldest continuously operating bar, The Brick was constructed in 1889, a year after fire destroyed the city and burned down the saloon’s predecessor.
“It was made with brick so it wouldn’t burn down,” general manager Randi Najar said.
Bar-stool banter revolved around the fire, the haze and air quality.
“That’s all anybody’s talking about,” Najar said.
At one point, a server told a customer she was heading out of town. Where?
“Montana — to watch their fires,” Sarah Raade quipped, referring to fires raging throughout Western states.
“Well, I hope you get a good, blue sky,” the customer replied.
It’s what everyone here is wishing.
Once a coal mining and logging town, Roslyn became known as a stand-in for a small Alaska town in the 1990s TV show, “Northern Exposure.” Now, the town is probably best known for its access to premier hiking destinations in the Teanaway forest. Buoyed by interest in the outdoors, Roslyn’s been growing.
The Brick sits a half block from Basecamp, an Instagram-ready bookstore, bakery and retailer that wouldn’t stand out if it were in trendy neighborhoods in Seattle.
“All of our storefronts are full,” said Lennie Mosiman, who has lived in Roslyn for 20 years. “They haven’t been full since I’ve lived here … I don’t feel bad for tourists (anymore) — they came here and there was nothing” before.
Vacant houses have been filled, Mosiman said.
The community has pulled together as the fires burn a few miles north. School was supposed to start Wednesday, but it has been delayed until Monday. On Thursday, The Brick will host a family event with Bingo and a kids movie screening.
Because of the smoke, “All the kids are cooped up in their houses and not able to go outside,” Najar said.
Many families have left town — Mosiman estimated that a quarter of her friends and neighbors are gone. With smoke hanging around town, Mosiman said her children had developed nose bleeds and coughs.
She sent them to the beach with grandma.
“The smoke was bothering them. How fun to be sent away,” she said. “That will be a good childhood memory.”
About 5 miles up Highway 903, fire crews were clearing brush, setting prescribed fires and preparing homes in the Morgan Creek neighborhood should the fire encroach more. In some areas, scarred, black earth was within 50 feet of pricey homes hidden along a winding road cut into a dusty hillside.
Along the road, sections of charred forest occasionally popped and crackled. Fragrant, freshly cut limbs mixed with smoke to produce a scent best described as a campfire constructed of Christmas trees.
Once, a small tree caught fire and let out a sound like Velcro tearing apart. Mostly, though, the area smoldered.
An inversion has left the area so socked-in with smoke, it is difficult to tell where Cle Elum Lake ends and the sky begins. For firefighters, the inversion was “like a lid on a pasta pot,” fire-information officer Kale Casey said.
It kept temperatures comfortable, and with little wind to fight, crews could take the offensive and burn underbrush with drip torches. If they could cut and burn back enough of the fire, which had swelled to more than 24,000 acres, they could contain it.
On Wednesday, all was working “within the plan,” information officer Steven Bekkekus said. But storms, possibly with thunder and lightning, loomed Thursday.
At the Red Cross Shelter in Cle Elum, John Kelly suffered not for lack of attention.
“I’ve really become a cause célèbre here,” he said, shaking his head, bemused.
Kelly has been sleeping on a cot for about a week at a senior center in Cle Elum that was rebuilt several years ago after a fire.
About a dozen reporters had visited him there so far. “I’ve been the only person here” at the shelter, he explained.
Although others displaced had stopped in, he was the only one who chose to stay.
His 40-year-old pickup was parked outside, loaded so full with boxes of family photos and 8mm home videos and memories “you couldn’t fit a stick of him in here.”
Kelly, a retired Boeing engineer, moved full time to a piece of property on a hilly patch of land in the Teanaway forest two years ago, drawn to its natural beauty and nights so quiet you could hear the background of your own ears. He left when evacuations were ordered and drove down in smoke so thick “it even blocked out the sun.”
This has been a circuslike departure from routine, with TV interviews and well-wishers and Bingo games a room away.
It’s been good, he said.
“You kind of meet a lot of people who are neighbors that you didn’t know … you make a lot of friends,” he said.
Everyone’s been exchanging numbers, he said. They hope to get together when this is all over, when nature finally rests.