Photo courtesy of the United States Forest Service
As of July 24, the Diamond Creek Fire had grown to about 250 acres.

New blaze breaks out in Pasayten Wilderness

By Marcy Stamper and Ann McCreary

With the Canyon Creek Fire controlled, and mop-up and rehab of fire lines complete, fire crews and support teams left their Winthrop base on Sunday (July 23).

The fire has remained within its 1,200-acre footprint, north and east of Carlton, for the past week.

The fire was declared 100 percent contained as of last Tuesday night, July 18, with a fire line around the full perimeter, but crews spent the rest of the week extending the area within that boundary.

As of Thursday (July 20), the fire had transitioned to a Type 4 team, with two 20-person crews and a strike team of engines to patrol and extinguish areas of heat. Firefighters and “trustee crews” from the Washington Department of Corrections repaired the effects of fire suppression, adding water bars and removing berms from bulldozer lines.

The Okanogan County Public Utility District also felled more hazardous trees and set power poles last week.

Occasional smoke from pockets of vegetation burning within the interior is expected to be visible over the next few weeks. Most remaining fuel is in steep terrain, far from the burned perimeter and posing no risk to the containment lines, according to Shannon O’Brien, an information officer with the U.S. Forest Service.

“Extinguishing hot spots that do not pose a threat to containment lines would present unnecessary risk to firefighters,” said incident commander Kathleen Russell.

The Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) will patrol the fire throughout the summer. DNR will be supported “by the sharp eyes of “Lightning Bill” Austin at the Leecher Mountain Lookout,” said O’Brien.

The fire started Saturday, July 15, and almost all its growth occurred that day. It was quickly controlled by local and state firefighters and several aircraft.

The fire threatened about 100 homes. Evacuations were ordered from Carlton to Lower Beaver Creek.

The cause is under investigation.

Diamond Creek Fire forces some trail closures

Meanwhile, a wildfire in the Pasayten Wilderness was burning on 250 acres as of Tuesday (July 25) about 18 miles north of Mazama, and forced closure of several hiking trails leading into the area.

The fire had more than doubled in size since Monday, and was being fought by eight smokejumpers from the North Cascades Smokejumper Base and a 20-person fire crew supported by helicopters.

Called the Diamond Creek Fire, the fire was first reported by a hiker on Sunday morning (July 23). The fire prompted the Forest Service to evacuate hikers and outfitters from the Hidden Lakes area of the Pasayten Wilderness.

The fire is burning next to the Hidden Lakes Trail (#477) which has been closed in response, said Methow Valley District Ranger Michael Liu. The fire itself is about 5 air miles southeast of Hidden Lakes, he said.

Other closures include the Billy Goat Trailhead, a popular access into the wilderness, Larch Creek Trail (#502) from the trailhead to McCall Trail (#548), Drake Trail (#502B), Burch Mountain Trail (#502A) and Dollarwatch Trail (#451).

“Fire personnel are making in-person contacts with hikers along the evacuated trails to inform them of the closure and provide information about alternate routes,” said O’Brien, the Forest Service information officer.

The fire is burning in steep slopes of the Diamond Creek drainage, east of where the drainage intersects with Lost River, about 4 air miles from the Billy Goat Trailhead.

Firefighters were doing reconnaissance Tuesday to identify ways to confine the Diamond Creek Fire. They were also doing structure preparation work for cabins near Middle Hidden Lake and the Hidden Lakes Trail Bridge that crosses Diamond Creek.

The historic cabins near Middle Hidden Lake are used by wilderness rangers working in the area.

As the fire continued to grow, the strategy has been adjusted to balance the likelihood of success with risks to firefighters, O’Brien said.

Direct suppression tactics were not proving effective enough in stopping the spread of the fire to warrant exposure of firefighters to risks in that location, she said.

A Wildland Fire Module — a small group of up to 10 specialists dedicated to planning and implementing long-term strategies for fires — was expected to arrive on Wednesday (July 26). That team, with input from local firefighters, will help develop a long-term strategy for the Diamond Creek Fire, according to the Forest Service.

Fire “plays an essential ecological role” but also poses risk to human life and structures, said Liu. “As managers, we consider the health and safety of our firefighters in conjunction with ecological needs and structures or other resources that may be at risk,” he said.

The Diamond Creek Fire is suspected to be human caused, as there was no lightning detected in the area. It was first noticed Saturday night by a hiker, who then made his way to a ridgetop to report it on Sunday morning.

Smoke from the fire has been visible at times around the county. Helicopters supporting firefighters are operating out of the North Cascades Smokejumper Base.

The weather forecast calls for continued hot and dry weather.