Homes, highways, pastures affected; more recovery ahead for valley residents
By Ann McCreary and Marcy Stamper
The potential for flooding, mudslides and erosion was predicted in the aftermath of the enormous wildfire that swept through the Methow Valley last month, searing more than 250,000 acres and leaving blackened hillsides bare of vegetation.
In her latest assault on the valley, Mother Nature wasted no time in demonstrating how severe the aftermath of fire could be.
After torrential rains brought flash floods and mudslides last week, the question posed by many calamity-weary Methow Valley residents was: “What next?”
The intense rainstorm on Thursday night (Aug. 21) damaged a dozen homes in Benson Creek and along state highways 20 and 153, according to Scott Miller, Okanogan County emergency management director.
Residents who found themselves in the path of the torrents of water and mud said they now know what a flash flood is.
“There was a 6-foot wall of water, with the horse standing on the only dry ground during the flood,” said Ginger Reddington, whose house and barns on upper Benson Creek survived the July wildfire.
Bunny Morgan, who lives on Highway 20 west of Loup Loup, said she first noticed a trickle of water flowing across her property and thought it was rain. But when she realized nearby Frazer Creek — normally a small trickle — was overflowing its banks, she had just minutes to move her car and a tractor onto high ground. “It was horrocious, the roar,” she said.
The floodwater covered all of Morgan’s fields and garden, leaving a foot of silt when it receded, and flowed through her garage. She was fortunate that her house, still ringed by burnt trees only a few feet away, wasn’t damaged by either the fire or the flood.
“It was raining, but the creek was holding its own. Then all of a sudden it pushed the pickup and angled it,” said Kim Maltais, who also lives near Frazer Creek on Highway 20 and lost his house in the wildfire last month. The water deposited a pickup truck and a pile of logs in front of his barn, which Maltais believes helped protect the building.
A 100-year-old storage structure, which was built by the original homesteaders on Maltais’ property, was not so lucky. The building, which rested on 6-foot pillars next to Frazer Creek, was ripped off its foundation. The roof is now perched above the creek several hundred feet downstream. The creek itself is flowing in a new channel carved in the storm.
Benson Creek hard-hit
Five of the 12 damaged homes were in the Benson Creek drainage, which was hit hard by wildfires last month. Four damaged homes were on Highway 20, and three homes along Highway 153 north of Carlton sustained damage when water and mud flowed down burned hillsides and crossed the highway. (See related story on page A6.)
One home on Highway 20 sustained additional damage when concrete blocks, which the homeowner had been put in place after the fires to try to protect the house from potential floods, were lifted by the strong flow and crashed into the side of the house, Miller said.
Residents and friends waded through knee-deep mud to salvage what they could from homes that that were inundated by the mudflows. Working with shovels and tractors, they were trying to dig out this week.
Hay and alfalfa fields in Benson Creek became mud flats. Gardens and landscaping around homes in the impacted areas were buried under inches or feet of muck, rocks and debris. One Benson Creek homeowner said he watched muddy water carry away a freestanding tool shed, which was later found about a mile down the canyon.
Runoff and slides damaged roads and highways, temporarily trapping some motorists between mudslides and eroding away the eastbound lane of Highway 153 near milepost 27, forcing traffic to detour around that area. Highway 20 was reduced to one lane through the flooded area.
Frazer Creek had swelled to almost 60 feet in width by 7:30 p.m. on Thursday night, after about an hour of heavy rain, according to Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) lead technician Deed Fink.
The flood carved deep gullies along the shoulder higher up toward Loup Loup Pass, but damage was most severe about three miles from the intersection with Route 153, where the raging creek had gouged a crevasse 8 feet deep next to the roadway. Large sections of pavement—the width of a lane—had broken off and fallen into the new ditch.
Silt and sediment carried down from burned slopes filled two-thirds of a culvert 12 feet in diameter during the storm.
Crews were depositing immense boulders in the ditch to divert water away from the roadway in the event of another flood, said Fink.
“It gives a whole new meaning to hydraulics,” said Fink.
Contract for repairs
WSDOT has let a contract for repair work that was expected to get underway this week on highways 20 and 153, and county road crews were working to repair erosion and damage in Benson Creek and other drainages.
The downpour also impacted the command base for the Carlton Complex Fire on Twisp-Carlton Road, when water began puddling below some of the tents used for office space.
Three or four tents had to be relocated, temporarily disrupting operations at the command center, said Brandon Robinson, public information officer.
One firefighter who was driving a fire vehicle down Benson Creek Road during the storm was temporarily trapped when his truck was swept off the road and lodged against a tree. He was able to escape after the water subsided.
The intense storm dumped more than an inch of rain on areas between Twisp and Carlton, according to the National Weather Service (NWS) in Spokane.
A rain gauge located four miles south of Twisp recorded 1.15 inches in a one-hour period, said meteorologist Ron Miller of NWS.
Radar readings from Seattle’s NWS office, which “can see storms closer to the crest of the Cascades better” than Spokane, estimated that just over 2 inches of rain would have fallen northwest of Carlton, Miller said.
The record summer rainfall recorded for Twisp was 1.96 inches on June 2, 1936. For the town of Methow the record is 1.82 on Aug. 10, 1983, Miller said.
“I would say the 1.15 is by no means a record rainfall for that area, but it is a significant amount,” Miller said.
Like many valley residents in the wake of the onslaught of catastrophes, Reddington tried to find some humor about the flood at her Benson Creek home.
“We found a lot of good things,” said Reddington. “ We’re getting new dirt, and now we have a creek,” she said, pointing to a new stream carved through her pasture by the flood.