Valley copes with impact of new fires, storms, outages and evacuations
By Ann McCreary
Weary and unnerved after enduring almost three weeks of devastating fires, evacuations, power outages and freakish storms, Methow Valley residents were sucker-punched again last weekend by a terrifying fire that engulfed 10 homes and threatened Winthrop — followed the next day by a severe windstorm that knocked down hundreds of trees around the valley.
Weekend lightning storms ignited several new fires in mountains surrounding the Methow Valley. The Little Bridge Creek Fire, which had burned an estimated 350 acres as of Tuesday (Aug. 5) in mountains about 10 miles west of Winthrop, posed particular concern because it has the potential to threaten both Winthrop and Twisp.
A new Incident Management Team arrived Sunday (Aug. 3) to manage the Little Bridge Creek Fire, which also includes a 3-acre blaze on Lucky Jim Bluff and small fires on Thompson Ridge and Virginia Ridge, which were considered contained at the beginning of this week.
Valley residents described themselves as shell-shocked, edgy and exhausted by the onslaught of events that are out of their control. Many were keeping their cars loaded with valued possessions and important documents, ready to flee at a moment’s notice.
“I’m very, very frightened,” said one Twisp River Road resident after a meeting Monday evening at the Twisp Valley Grange about the fires in and around the valley.
Fire crews were still patrolling and mopping up the Rising Eagle Road Fire, which burned 502 acres between Twisp and Winthrop and was considered fully contained Tuesday. All areas that had been at Level 3 evacuation had dropped to lower levels, fire officials said.
The Rising Eagle Road Fire started Friday (Aug. 1) around 2 p.m. by a spark from a flat tire on a trailer, which ignited grass near Signal Hill Road off of Highway 20 between Twisp and Winthrop. Crews from Okanogan Fire District 6 and Department of Natural Resources responded, but within minutes the blaze erupted into a wind-driven firestorm that looked all-too-familiar to residents who had witnessed the ferocious fires that swept through the valley two weeks earlier.
As the fire raged north, Highway 20 was closed and aerial assistance was called in to fight the blaze. Many of the aircraft were already in the area, fighting the Carlton Complex Fire. Four scoopers came from Canada and a DC-10 air tanker, one of only two in the nation, arrived from Moses Lake.
For hours an all-out battle ensued, during which a total of 17 helicopters, six water scoopers, two air tankers and the DC-10 tanker (dropping retardant) attacked the fire. Motorists pulled off along Old Twisp Highway and the Twisp-Winthrop Eastside County Road across the valley and watched in awe.
“I’ve never seen any fire behave like it,” Don Waller, Okanogan Fire District 6 chief, said the next day. “I couldn’t believe you could get that much in the air at one time.”
Bill Moody of Twisp flew air attack on the fire, calling in aircraft and directing air traffic from a small fixed-wing plane circling the fire. In his 35 years of conducting air attack on fires, Moody said the Rising Eagle Road Fire was one of the most challenging experiences.
“It’s one of the busiest, most compressed with the resources available in such a short amount of time, and with such high stakes with all the structures there,” Moody said. “It took me a long time to get to sleep that night.”
Up to five helicopters worked at a time, “daisy-chaining” to the Methow River, filling up buckets, dumping water and then returning to refill over and over again, said Moody. The scoopers flew back and forth to Pearrygin Lake for water.
“It was a small airspace and a quick turnaround,” Moody said.
Despite the ferocious battle from the air, 36 structures were burned — 10 of them homes.
“This is an excellent example of how cured out and dry your fuels are, particularly the grasses,” said Dave Carter, operations chief for the Carlton Complex Incident Management Team, which took over management of the Rising Eagle Road Fire. “That thing took off … even though we had all those helicopters.”
As the fire raged, Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers drove through threatened residential areas to tell people to evacuate. At one point flames closed over the hood of his patrol car, and he was forced to retreat, Rogers said.
As the fire moved north, it approached to within about one-half mile of Liberty Bell High School, where the incident command for the Carlton Complex Fire is located.
Homes were lost or damaged in and around Signal Hill Road, Hoot ‘N Holler, Rising Eagle Road and Wandling Road. Evacuation orders were issued for threatened residential areas including Pine Forest and Twin Lakes. The battle against the fire was mostly over by Friday night.
The fire damaged an Okanogan County Electric Cooperative power line that runs through the Hoot ‘N Holler neighborhood and serves the upper Twisp River, leaving many customers without power.
Then, the storm
About 24 hours after the fire, on Saturday afternoon (Aug. 2), an intense and fast-moving rain and windstorm blew through the valley, ripping huge trees up by their roots, breaking others in half, dropping them onto roadways, houses, cars and power lines. A weather specialist at the Carlton Complex headquarters estimated wind gusts at up to 58 miles per hour.
Residents told stories of trees falling across the roadway as they drove during the storm. Another resident said she fled her home when tree branches punched through a bathroom ceiling.
A Hoot ‘N Holler resident, whose home narrowly survived the fire that came within a few feet the day before, found a tree lying across the roof of the house the next day.
The wind damage caused further power outages as branches and trees took down power lines. David Gottula, manager of the electric co-op, said it appeared there were “scattered microbursts all around” that created pockets of destruction.
“Some places were worse than others. Hoot ‘N Holler looked like that game, pick-up-sticks. We had to get an excavator in there just to get to the [power] line,” Gottula said.
His linemen also reported extensive damage in the Twin Lakes and Wolf Creek Road areas, and the upper part of Twisp River Road. Power was returned by Tuesday (Aug. 5) to most customers impacted by fire and storm.
There was good news for residents, many in the badly damaged southern part of the valley, who have been without power for almost three weeks since the mid-July fires.
The Okanogan County Public Utility District (PUD) anticipates that power will be restored to almost all customers who lost power, including those in the most heavily damaged areas, by this weekend. Crews from other utilities that have been helping with the repairs will be leaving this week.
Anyone who has had electrical work done since the outage should contact the state Labor & Industries Department for an inspection before power can be reconnected, according to the PUD.
Customers who still do not have power after Thursday (Aug. 7) should call the PUD at (509) 422-3310.
A community information meeting held Monday (Aug. 4) at the Twisp Grange gave concerned residents an update on fires around the valley.
The Little Bridge Creek Fire, which started Saturday evening (Aug. 2) about a mile east of Midnight Mountain, had grown from 150 acres Monday to 350 acres Tuesday morning.
A flare-up late Monday produced a smoke column that was visible from Twisp. “The conditions are for pretty extreme fire behavior today and tomorrow,” said Chuck Turley, a fire information officer.
The Washington Type 2 Incident Management Team called in to manage the fire was setting up a command post on the Twisp-Carlton Road this week.
Though not large, the Little Bridge Creek Fire is nevertheless a concern because of its potential to reach populated areas in the Methow Valley.
The fire is about 10 miles west of Winthrop, about 6 miles west of the Sun Mountain and Pine Forest areas, and about 3 miles from the Twisp River drainage.
The fire was moving in a generally north-northeast direction, Turley said. “It did not move any closer to Twisp River” as of Tuesday, Turley said.
The Lone Mountain Fire has been expanding in steep, rugged wilderness around the Boulder Creek drainage northeast of Stehekin since a July 14 lightning storm. A Wildland Fire Management Team was working to prevent the fire from reaching the War Creek drainage, which intercepts the Twisp River drainage.
“That has been our concern,” said Incident Commander John Thompson.
Thompson said firefighting “modules” are camping in the remote area for a week at a time, directing helicopter bucket drops, hot spotting the fire and patrolling War Creek Pass above the Twisp River valley. The Lone Mountain fire was about 2,200 acres on Tuesday.
The massive Carlton Complex Fire, the largest in Washington history, was reported 90 percent contained Tuesday. Crews and equipment were being released, according to information officer Anne Jeffrey. Some of the equipment would likely be used on the Little Bridge Creek Fire, she said.
Dry and windy conditions predicted for Tuesday and Wednesday would “test our fire lines,” and created a potential for the fire to grow, Jeffrey said.
Crews have been focusing on building containment lines around the northern tip of the fire above Pearrygin Lake, and reinforcing the lines around an unburned area of 23,204 acres — called the “donut hole” by the incident management team — in the middle of the fire, Jeffrey said.
The Carlton Complex Fire was estimated to have cost more than $53 million to combat as of the beginning of the week. As of early this week, 322 homes, three multi-family dwellings, one commercial structure and 145 outbuildings have been destroyed.
The Upper Falls Creek Fire is burning in the Chewuch drainage 20 miles north of Winthrop, moving east toward an area burned in 2004 by the Farewell Fire, said John Rohrer of the Methow Valley Ranger District.
The fire was estimated at 200 acres on Tuesday and helicopters with buckets were dropping water on it. Management of the fire was going to be turned over to the Carlton Complex Fire team Wednesday.
Another fire, the Little Burgett Fire, was also burning in the Chewuch drainage, about 16 miles northwest of Winthrop. It was estimated at 3 acres on Tuesday morning.
Goat Peak, Cub Pass and West Fawn fires, all burning on the Methow Ranger District, were estimated at less than 1 acre each on Tuesday morning, according to information from the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.