Photo by Steve Mitchell

A firefighting helicopter picked up a load of retardant at a staging area near Patterson Lake.

All previous evacuation levels remain in place

Firefighters on the Crescent Mountain and McLeod fires, as well as Methow Valley residents, got a welcome break last weekend with the arrival of cooler, damper weather — and even some light rain.

The favorable weather conditions over the weekend provided what fire managers called a “turning point,” enabling firefighting crews to attack the fires directly in some troublesome areas, particularly in the Buttermilk Butte area of the Twisp River drainage.

A low-pressure system that moved into the Methow Valley also cleared out thick smoke that had prevented aircraft from flying for much of the past week, and allowed fire managers to utilize helicopters and planes to drop water and retardant to cool hot spots and reinforce containment lines.

“We’re flying everything that we’ve got, something we have not been able to do yet on this fire,” Derrick Moore, operations section chief, said Monday (Aug. 27).

Level 3 evacuation notices were still in place as of Tuesday (Aug. 28) for people living west of the intersection of Little Bridge Creek Road and Twisp River Road. Maurice Goodall, Okanogan County emergency manager, said the notices would likely remain in place until fire managers contained an area burning west of Scaffold Ridge.

Fire managers had generally upbeat news for residents who attended a public information meeting on Monday evening at the Methow Valley Community Center. A small cold front was expected to arrive mid-week bringing some winds, followed by a warming and drying trend but relatively cool temperatures, according to fire managers. Fire behavior was predicted to be moderate through the end of the week.

The Crescent Mountain Fire burning in the Twisp River drainage has been most active and worrisome on its southwest flank. “The south side of the fire has been moving the most and pushing toward the southeast, looking into Libby Creek,” Moore said.  Early this week, it was being held at a containment line in the Buttermilk Butte area, easing concerns for fire managers.

Moore said three hotshot crews were “dug in” around Buttermilk Butte to contain the fire there and reinforce lines near the butte.  “Picture this as an anthill … crews are swarming that Buttermilk Butte just like fire ants,” he said.  Crews have dug trenches and cleared trees around Buttermilk Butte, he said.

The Libby Creek and Poorman Creek areas were put on “alert” by Okanogan County Emergency Management last week. Structure assessment was taking place in Libby Creek, but no structure protection measures have been implemented in the Libby Creek area, Moore said. “We don’t feel we’re at that point,” he said. Extensive structure protection, such as clearing vegetation and installing sprinkler systems around homes, has been completed in the Twisp River drainage and Poorman Creek area in recent weeks.

Watching a ‘pocket’

Fire managers early this week were closely watching a triangular “pocket” of several hundred acres, in an area between the Twisp River SnoPark and Scaffold Ridge, Moore said. The topography is too steep for crews to attack directly, so “we’re going to have to bring the fire out to the road and nurse it along” toward a containment line at Scaffold Ridge, Moore said.

Once that area of the fire is declared contained, the Level 3 evacuations in the Buttermilk and upper Twisp River areas may be lifted, said Goodall. “When that finally gets secured, that’s when we are going to feel comfortable.”

Level 3 evacuation notices, which means “leave immediately,” were put in place on Aug. 17 for residents in the West Buttermilk Creek Road and Twisp River Road west of the Buttermilk Creek intersection. Another Level 3 evacuation was issued on Aug. 21 for Twisp River Road residents west of Little Bridge Creek. A Level 2 (get set) evacuation is in effect for people living west of Newby Creek Road to Little Bridge Creek Road.

Security guards are manning a roadblock 24 hours a day at the Little Bridge Creek intersection. Residents living past the roadblock in the area under Level 3 were being allowed to come and go after checking in with the guards, but nonresidents weren’t allowed into the area, Goodall said. “We need to know who is in there in case something does happen,” he said.

The situation “is difficult,” and unlike previous wildfire evacuations he has managed, Goodall said. In past events, there has not been the time for the advance planning that has been possible with the Crescent Mountain Fire incident.

“We’re kind of defying our evacuation levels, by letting people back in there,” he said. But the proximity of the fire and the fact that a part of the fire nearby is still not contained means the evacuation orders need to stay in place, he said.

People in the evacuation zones should not become “complacent,” Goodall said. “Don’t think the fire can’t still go.”

Holding in places

Moore said movement in other areas of the Crescent fire slowed in the past week. The fire was holding on a ridge at the boundary of the North Cascades National Park above Stehekin. “Our friends in the national park are less concerned about it coming down the hillside,” he said Tuesday.

At the northeast edge of the fire, near Slate Lake, fire managers have “pounded it with helicopters and retardant” to cool the edge of the fire and prevent it from spreading down the river or toward Winthrop, Moore said.

The McLeod Fire north of Mazama was not threatening any residences or communities as of early this week, although some structure assessment was taking place. The fire has had relatively little growth over the past several days, Moore said. A fire scar from the 1994 Whiteface Fire was slowing southward moving of the McLeod fire. Crews were shoring up fire lines west and east of Goat Creek, and have “a good anchor” around Sweetgrass Butte, Moore said.

On the east side, the fire was moving toward Eightmile Road, where it is expected to be contained at a contingency line extending up the road. Campgrounds at Ruffed Grouse and Honeymoon were undamaged, and the northern edge of the fire was approaching last year’s Diamond Creek Fire scar, he said.

Previous fuels reduction treatments by the U.S. Forest Service along the Eightmile drainage “made it easy” to create a containment line, said Mike Wilkins, incident commander for the Southern Area Blue Type 1 Incident Management Team that has worked on the fires since Aug. 18. That team will hand over management to a Northern Rockies Incident Management Team on Thursday (Aug. 30).

The Crescent Mountain Fire was started by lightning on July 29 about 21 miles west of Twisp. As of Tuesday it was 42,942 acres (almost 68 square miles) with 24 percent containment, and had 595 people assigned to it. The McLeod Fire started by lighting on Aug. 11 about eight miles north of Mazama. On Tuesday it was 21,659 acres (almost 34 square miles), five percent contained, with 363 people assigned to it.   

Up-to-date information on the fires is available on InciWeb at inciweb.nwcg.gov. There is also a Facebook page for the Crescent Mountain Fire.