Photo by Marcy Stamper
Ash fall has become a near-daily occurence.

Level 1 evacuation notice issued in several valley areas

By Marcy Stamper

After primarily burning pockets within its existing perimeter for several weeks, the Diamond Creek Fire intensified in the past 10 days, almost tripling in size to 95,000 acres.

Fire officials were prompted to issue the lowest evacuation level — be aware of a fire in the area — for Mazama, Lost River and the Rendezvous on Tuesday (Sept. 5).

Abnormally dry conditions for an extended period of time have led to extreme fire behavior, said Matt Ellis, a fire management officer for the Methow Valley Ranger District.

Since those conditions have persisted all summer, all vegetation — from trees to dead, downed logs to shrubs and grasses — continues to dry, creating conditions for more rapid fire spread, said Ellis. Factors such as topography and wind combine with those super-dry conditions, causing wildfires to grow, he said.

The evacuation alert for Mazama and the Rendezvous is more a consequence of those exceptionally dry conditions than the fact that the Diamond Creek Fire is closer to those communities, said Ellis.

In the alert notifying people of the Level 1 advisory for Mazama, Lost River and the Rendezvous, Okanogan County Emergency Management said “persons should be aware that the Diamond Creek Fire is advancing towards the Lost River area …  No evacuation is needed at this time.” The alert said people should have an evacuation plan in place, be aware of their surroundings, and take action if needed.

With no measurable precipitation since June 10 and an extended forecast with no relief in sight, fire managers want to make people aware of the potential for fire growth caused by the severely dry conditions, said Ellis.

Fire burns into Canada

Unseasonably hot and dry weather and windy conditions resulted in substantial fire growth in the north and northwest, pushing the fire into Canada on Aug. 29. As of Tuesday (Sept. 5), the portion of the fire in British Columbia had reached 10,000 acres.

Fire crews made a significant effort with aircraft and personnel to prevent the fire from moving into Canada, but with the hot, dry weather, the fire burned through previous fire scars and across the border, said Ellis.

U.S. and Canadian firefighters coordinate their activities daily. The Canadian authorities evacuated Cathedral Provincial Park, similar to closures in the Pasayten Wilderness, said Ellis.

Thick smoke on Monday and Tuesday (Sept. 4 and 5) reduced visibility to 1/2 mile over the fire, meaning it was too dangerous to use aircraft, said Ellis. Firefighters have been using helicopters to drop water on the fire when possible.

Wilderness rangers used pack animals to transport supplies to wrap historic cabins at Pasayten Airstrip and Spanish Camp last week.

On Monday (Sept. 4), the fire continued to burn in the Ashnola River drainage toward the Spanish Camp, Remmel Lake and Ptarmigan Creek areas. To the southwest, the Diamond Creek Fire crested over Butte Pass but remained in the upper reaches of Monument Creek in rocky terrain.

The hotter-and-drier-than-normal weather prompted Gov. Jay Inslee to proclaim a state of emergency on Sept. 2 because of the high risk of severe wildfires statewide. The proclamation directs state resources to do everything reasonably possible to help communities respond to and recover from the fires.

Inslee also ordered the State Guard and National Guard into active service as directed by the Washington Military Department.

The Diamond Creek Fire was reported on July 23 by a hiker in the Pasayten Wilderness. “From the start, the extreme terrain and fuel loading has limited the direct response actions that might normally be taken to put out a fire,” said Erin Uloth, the agency administrator for the fire.

There are more than 60 roads or trails closures in the Pasayten Wilderness, including Monument Trail #484 and Andrews Creek #504. Complete closure details and maps are available at inciweb.nwcg.gov/incident/5409/.

The Diamond Creek Fire is determined to be human-caused, and an investigation is underway. The fire is expected to continue burning until a wetting rain or snow occurs.


Air quality deteriorates as smoke lingers

With wildfires in every direction, the Methow Valley, like most of the Northwest, is suffering under a thick haze of smoke, keeping many people indoors even during the recent holiday weekend. Those who did venture outside found everything coated with a layer of white ash flecked with larger black flakes.

New fires were ignited near Manson, Leavenworth and Cashmere within the past week. Meanwhile, fires burning near Yakima, Cle Elum and on the Colville Reservation have contributed to the smoke and unhealthy air quality.

Montana has had a particularly severe summer for wildfires, with a blaze currently threatening a historic hotel in Glacier National Park. More smoke comes from fires in Idaho, where air quality was hazardous early this week. Oregon is also battling severe fires, in particular west of the Cascades.

Since the Labor Day weekend, air quality in the Methow Valley has ranged from unhealthy for sensitive groups to unhealthy for everyone. The air quality is not expected to improve significantly this week, as temperatures remain above normal.

Even when air quality is “moderate,” people with respiratory conditions or heart disease should avoid strenuous outdoor activity. By the time the advisory reaches “unhealthy,” everyone should limit time outdoors and avoid exercising, and those in sensitive groups should stay indoors. People should keep doors and windows closed and use an air conditioner if available.

N-95 respirator masks are available at Aero Methow Rescue Service in Twisp.