Tom Zbyszewski, one of three firefighters who died battling the Okanagan Complex Fire, was also an accomplished performer. He was a finalist in the 2013 Washington State Poetry Out Loud competition. 
    Slideshow Icon 3 slides
Enlarge Icon
Tom Zbyszewski, one of three firefighters who died battling the Okanagan Complex Fire, was also an accomplished performer. He was a finalist in the 2013 Washington State Poetry Out Loud competition.
Credit: Courtesy of Jesse Michener

The Fields On Fire: Northwest Poets On Wildfires

Among the three firefighters who lost their lives last month fighting the wildfires in Okanogon was one with a connection to poetry. Tom Zbyszewski, 20, grew up in the Methow Valley.

That got KUOW's literary producer and Washington state poet laureate Elizabeth Austen thinking about how Pacific Northwest poets have responded to wildfires. She talked with Marcie Sillman about poems by Kevin Goodan and Nance Van Winckel.

Kevin Goodan, an Idaho-based poet, spent 10 seasons fighting fires for the U.S. Forest Service. He reads an excerpt from his poem sequence Let That Fire Catch Me Now, a collaboration with photographer Adam Ottavi. Read the sequence of poems and see the photographs that inspired them at terrain.org.

Nance Van Winckel is a poet and novelist who lives in Spokane. She wrote the poem "The Field on Fire" in response to a first-hand experience in the early 1990s, when the Spokane area was threatened with multiple fires.

The Field on Fire

But it’s so far, we can’t be sure.

We pull on rubber-soled boots—

still in their partial melt-down

from the last blaze. From

that pre-dawn, smoked-out

moonlit walk across the embers

of our neighbor’s pig farm. Tree stumps

glowing like Chinese lanterns.

The oinkless quiet and the great stench.

We pace the ridge. Shovels

on our shoulders. Then here’s

a wind to rile the flames.

Dangling from helicopters,

huge buckets hover above the pond,

then dip down. Teacups poured

on the rising inferno. Ah, so we

see now: the tail of the past

loops around and falls smack into

the dropped-jowled mouths

of the wide-eyed watchers,

as Miss Lone Survivor Pig

from the last apocalypse hurtles out

from the crackling trees.

The question mark of her tail

against the blazing backdrop.

And the hellbent rush of her coming

at us, like the final page of a story

we’ve read a dozen times, each time

hoping it wouldn’t end like this.

– Nance Van Winckel

Kevin Goodan is the author of the poetry collections "Upper Level Disturbances" (Center for Literary Publishing, 2012), "Winter Tenor" (Alice James Books, 2009) and "In the Ghost-House Acquainted" (Alice James Books, 2004). He teaches at Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston, Idaho.

Nance Van Winckel has published five books of fiction and six collections of poetry. Her latest volume, "Pacific Walkers" (University of Washington Press, 2013), was a finalist for the Washington State Book Award in poetry. She is professor emerita at Eastern Washington University and teaches in the Vermont College for Fine Arts' MFA in writing program.

Elizabeth Austen is posting Pacific Northwest poets' responses to fire at wapoetlaureate.org, with a new poem every other day until the end of fire season.