I was playing at the Winthrop Rhythm and Blues Festival, less than six miles from the edge of the largest forest fire in Washington state history, and within hours of the opening of the festival outside a silent, dark town, the festival had become a relief effort.
There had been a lot of talk about canceling the festival, but after conferring with the fire officials and emergency response teams in the area, the organizers decided to proceed with the event. The fire was traveling in the opposite direction, and access from Highway 20 was on the opposite side of Winthrop from the fire and unthreatened.
The authorities only asked that the festival inform travelers that the power was out in Winthrop, and that gas was somewhat scarce at times.
Only a few vendors were there Friday night when the band I was there with, The Soul of John Black, got set up on stage. Everywhere people drifted in clusters, staring out over the parking area at the towering columns of smoking rising above the hills across the river.
The festival site was the only location in the entire region that had electricity, and people were talking, stunned, of the near total destruction of the town of Pateros the previous night.
It hit me particularly hard. I grew up further north of Pateros on Highway 97, and any trip to the city for any reason involved passing through the small town of Pateros, with its orchards and apple packing sheds.
Once the stage was set up, the festival turned into a fundraiser. As each band took the stage, emcee Lady A White passed a bucket through the crowd and urged contributions.
One young man, tears in his eyes, stepped up and threw $100 in the bucket. He, a firefighter, had lost his own home the night before along with all his belongings. He had insurance that would cover everything, he said. But he knew his neighbors did not.
The festival quickly raised $5,000 for wildfire relief, but that wasn’t the full extent of the effort to help.
Because the grounds had power, refugees from the fires were invited to come, camp, shower, and bring their pets to safety.
Firefighters, too, were welcomed to come rest, eat, shower and listen to music.
After the festival, the promoters and music community continues to seek ways to help give back to the community that has provided a home for the music festival for more than 25 years.
Aug. 29, a concert is planned for the Winthrop area to raise money for fire relief. And music fans and musicians are spreading the word about how to help.
I’m one of them.
To help the survivors of the Carlton Complex Fire, visit the excellent site at http://www.cfncw.org/. One hundred percent of donations to that organization go directly to fire relief.