I visited Pateros just five days after the firestorm struck. The blaze, known as the Carlton Complex fire, moved with lightning speed, consuming one acre per second at its peak, according to emergency management officials. Miraculously, everyone survived. For many, the losses are total: homes, heirlooms and personal momentos, a neighborhood were lost in minutes.
Now everyone is trying to move forward, a tough task without electricity, phone service, or clean water to drink. The firestorm left many questions and uncertainty in its wake. What next? Working alongside Diane Hermanson, who volunteers with the Red Cross as a mental health caseworker, I discover Pateros is a small town, yet with an enormous sense of community. But to fully recover, residents will need help.
Diane reaches out to families that have lost their homes and their neighbors, community leaders and local health professionals. She’s assessing how she and her team can provide emotional support. One key lesson she shared with me: “When you first meet people who’ve just experienced a disaster, what they often need most to be able to tell you their story.”
Diane explains that in retelling an experience, it allows someone to confirm that they indeed witnessed—and survived—an extraordinary event. It's a comfort for people to talk about it. And, she adds, “It’s important to have someone listen, really listen, to them.”
In Pateros, we meet many people who readily share their stories.
“It was pitch black out,” recalled Mitch Herdy. “The flames raced through here, you wouldn’t recognize the place.” He pulls out his cell phone to show me footage taken from his truck: leaping flames light the ride, tarring the skies, like night falling in the middle of the day. I watched and realized that his cell phone video also reaffirmed his experience.
There is little disagreement among the Pateros residents we met. The wildfire that swept through town at breakneck speed took everyone by surprise.
But as neighbors come together and assess how their community will move forward, the fires are still burning. As we left, authorities had just issued another evacuation order for the tiny town of Carlton nearby. Diane and I know that there will be more work to do and more stories to be told and listened to before the fire season is over.