Last weekend, as firefighters raced to contain a wildfire that threatened cabins near Packwood and perhaps the whole town itself, the story felt very personal.
Just the week before, my wife and kids had enjoyed a day with friends at their cabin along the Cowlitz River. Within a few days of our revelry, that cabin was squarely in the evacuation zone.
A month before that, three generations of my family had been at Packwood Lake, just a mile or two from the fire site. My mom and kids and I had spent that week riding horses and camping with a dear family friend on the west side of Packwood, at one point bicycling into town and up to High Valley. That area was also evacuated last week as the Goat Rock fire grew to 2,500-plus acres.
Although the community of Packwood is not out of the woods yet (and neither is the fire), the weather has moderated and the “go now” evacuation order has been lifted. The fire will likely burn until quenched by thorough winter weather, but the direst risk to Packwood has lessened.
In a natural disaster, we see the best of our society and community as citizens and government worked together.
Firefighters raced to the scene from across the region. Our county’s Department of Social and Health Services put together a shelter for evacuees at the public school complex in Randle. Those who needed to move livestock were given space at the Southwest Washington Fairgrounds in Chehalis. People donated food for people and animals.
My parents prepared to host several friends at their home if necessary.
My wife and I checked in with friends and prepared to give supplies or money to the response if needed.
The same thing happens when floods hit our community. We work together to survive and recover.
Part of our rural ethos is self-sufficiency. Folks are prepared for power outages, winter storms, and taking care of themselves independently if things get bad for awhile.
At the same time, we are generous when the disaster spares us but hits our neighbor. That kind of solidarity comes easily and naturally in a small community. We know it could happen to us, so we help out if it hits someone else.
I keep thinking about if and how we can expand that to our state and nation.
Our impulse to help when we know people, or at least feel a kinship due to our shared locale, is harder to “scale” to 50 states and 330 million people. And yet, after the flood of 2007, we had donations come in from around the nation. Volunteers moved here for weeks, months or even years to help us rebuild.
After the Paradise fire destroyed entire communities in northern California, my friend Bruce Maier organized a benefit concert to raise money for people a thousand miles away.
But beyond natural disasters, the challenges we face in our modern world are often larger and more complex.
Take the causes of the fire in Packwood.
Some folks look at climate change and see drier, hotter conditions leading to more wildfire dangers and new risks in places that hadn’t known them before.
Other folks looks look at forest management and say that we should be logging areas before they can burn — that removing wood will limit fires.
There’s probably truth in both those perspectives. But will those sides listen to each other?
This week for work, I was at a conference and had the chance to listen in on a conversation about politics and division in American society. One of the panelists, an expert pollster, said something interesting. He sees extreme polarization in our nation, exacerbated by partisan news and social media.
On the other hand, he says most people themselves aren’t nearly as divided as our mass media leads us to believe.
He said he could pick any 12 people off the street and that in honest, open conversation they could probably agree on solutions to nearly any problem facing our nation.
I think he’s right. But another speaker at our conference said a major issue facing America is our divided, partisan information sources. We can’t even agree on the basic facts, so how are we to agree on solutions?
We face big problems in America, but we have a secret weapon to fight them — each other.
We come together in disasters. Let’s come together on the other challenges, too.
Let’s listen to each other. Let’s take the initiative to get outside our “information bubbles” and find facts rather than partisan talking points. Let’s listen to the expertise and experience of our fellow Americans. Let’s reward compromise that moves us forward, rather than flocking to those who fan the flames of division.
We can make America stronger, but we can only do it together. Let’s not wait for the blaze to reach us before we start fighting the fires.
Brian Mittge is a fourth-generation resident of Lewis County. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.