Photo by Steve Mitchell Heavy smoke limited visibility on Highway 20 near the fire camp at the Blues Ranch.

Unstable conditions predicted for ‘erratic’ blaze

“Erratic” behavior of the Crescent Mountain Fire, and predictions of unstable fire conditions, led to a Level 3 (leave immediately) evacuation Tuesday afternoon (Aug. 21) for Twisp River Road residents west of Little Bridge Creek.

A Level 2 evacuation (be ready) was issued for people living west of Newby Creek Road to Little Bridge Creek Road in the Twisp River drainage. Twisp River Road, which has been closed at Little Bridge Creek, was closed west of Newby Creek Road, including Newby Creek Road, except to local traffic.

The Crescent Mountain Fire moved out of the Eagle Creek drainage and was heading east in the direction of Twisp on Tuesday. The fire made a run toward the southwest along Mack Creek drainage on Monday (Aug. 20), reaching the boundary of North Cascades National Park and the Lake Chelan National Recreation Area above Stehekin.

“The fire crossed over Eagle Creek and the activity of the fire pushing south toward Stehekin was really not anticipated. The fire is acting erratic,” said Maurice Goodall, Okanogan County emergency manager. Goodall said he decided to issue the latest evacuation after talking with officials from the fire Incident Management Team and Okanogan County Fire District 6 officials.

“With the weather coming in, the fire is predicted to flow with the terrain, pushing east,” Goodall said.

Fire managers “wanted to err on the side of caution” in deciding to issue the evacuation notice, said Mike Wilkins, commander of the Southern Area Blue Type 1 that took over the Crescent Mountain and McLeod fires on Saturday (Aug. 18).

In a video update Tuesday afternoon, Wilkins said the distance the fire traveled Monday in its push toward the national park boundary is about the same as the distance from the eastern edge of the fire to a fire line on Scaffold Ridge, where managers hope to hold the fire.

“This line, while constructed, is very difficult to hold,” Wilkins said. Winds were expected to become south to southwest by Wednesday and push the fire in the direction of Twisp.

Earlier notice

A Level 3 evacuation was issued Friday (Aug. 17) for residents in the West Buttermilk Creek Road and Twisp River Road west of the Buttermilk Creek intersection. About 40 homes were affected by that evacuation, and all but one homeowner left, he said. “We had very good response,” Goodall said.

Fire managers were concerned about an expected increase in the Haines Index on Wednesday (Aug. 22), said Russell Hubright, a public information official with the incident management team.

The Haines Index, which measures from 1 to 6, indicates the potential for wildfire growth by measuring stability and dryness of air over a fire. The index was expected to increase from 3 on Tuesday to 5 on Wednesday, Hubright said.

The McLeod Fire, burning north of Mazama, grew with sustained winds of 25 mph on Sunday night (Aug. 19) and early this week firefighters were working to contain and suppress spot fires in the Sweetgrass Butte area. The fire continues to burn along Eightmile north toward the Honeymoon Campground and efforts were continuing to secure that area.

The Crescent Mountain and McLeod Fires received a “surge” of six new 20-person crews on Tuesday, including some highly trained hotshot crews. The crews were primarily assigned to the McLeod Fire, focusing on the fires in the Sweetgrass Butte area, said, Todd Schroeder, a public information officer.

Crews were working to shore up a contingency line for the McLeod Fire extending from Long Creek to Sweetgrass Butte and on to Eightmile Road.

On the Crescent Mountain Fire, a contingency line was completed on Scaffold Ridge and fire managers had hoped to use helicopters to deliver retardant to reinforce the edge of the line, but poor visibility due to smoke kept the aircraft grounded for the past several days.

Photo by Steve Mitchell

Old-fashioned technology — paper maps, for instance — is still important for fire managers who may be new to the Methow Valley.

Planning ahead

Goodall said in planning for Level 3 evacuations, he wants to avoid issuing them at night. “My goal is, if we have to go to a Level 3 that it’s done during the day. It’s safer. We want to do it during daylight because people are less likely to get hurt and panic,” Goodall said.

While the fires have grown steadily, fire managers have had time to plan ahead. Before the evacuation of West Buttermilk area, Goodall said, he was able to survey affected residents who were signed on the county emergency notification system to ask if anyone needed shelter. None did, although a Red Cross shelter was set up at the Methow Valley Community Center in Twisp and is available if needed, Goodall said.

He encouraged residents to sign up for the county’s emergency alert system at http://okanogandem.org. Click on the outline map of Okanogan County that says “Alert System.”

The Crescent Mountain Fire was started by lightning on July 29 about 21 miles west of Twisp, and was more than 26,000 acres on Tuesday, with 34 percent containment. The McLeod Fire started Aug. 11 about 8 miles north of Mazama during another lightning storm, and was more than 15,000 acres on Tuesday with 5 percent containment.

More than 800 personnel were assigned to the two fires as of early this week. Over the past two weeks, extensive structure protection has been conducted on properties along the Twisp River drainage, including clearing fuels and setting up sprinkler systems. Crews were assessing needs in Mazama and other areas that could be impacted by the McLeod Fire.

The fires have forced closure of many roads, including areas around Eightmile, Goat Peak, Poorman Creek, Libby Creek, Gold Creek, McClure Mountain and Lookout Mountain Road. Contact the Methow Valley Ranger District at 996-4003 for updated information.

In addition, the airspace above the Methow Valley is restricted to assure safety for firefighting aircraft.

Information about the Crescent Mountain and McLeod Fires is on InciWeb at http://inciweb.nwcg.gov. There is also a Facebook page for the Crescent Mountain Fire.