Level 2 evacuation status extended to Libby Creek area

By Ann McCreary

The Crescent Mountain and McLeod fires became the top priority wildfires in the nation on Sunday (Sept. 2), which meant more crews and equipment have become available to fight the fires.

The priority status was due in part to a decrease in fires in other parts of the nation, said Brandon Cichowski, operations section chief for the Northern Rockies Type 1 Incident Management Team.

Photos by Marcy Stamper
Residents all along the Twisp River valley let firefighters know how much they appreciate their hard work.

Winds that arrived with a cold front toward the end of last week created concerns on the Crescent Mountain Fire, which is burning in the upper Twisp River drainage. The winds pushed flames across the Little Buttermilk Creek drainage to Mission Peak at the top of the Libby Creek drainage. That prompted a Level 2 (get set) evacuation on Friday (Aug. 31) for residents of Smith Canyon Road and Libby Creek west of Smith Canyon Road.

The fire on Mission Peak was “the primary area of concern” on the Crescent Mountain Fire for incident managers early this week, but the fire on Mission Peak was not showing a lot of growth, said Derek Ibarguen, a public information officer with the Northern Rockies team.

The fire had reached a saddle on the mountain above the Libby Creek drainage, but was not backing down toward Libby Creek, held up in “scabby country,” said Cichowski. Water scooper planes were used over the weekend to help keep the fire in check.

Crews and heavy equipment have been working over the past week to build a fire line extending from the upper part of Libby Creek drainage to Gold Creek, and were nearing completion early this week.

Structure protection assessment was continuing in the Libby Creek area. Fire managers said that structure protection, if needed, would be primarily from engine crews on site, rather than sprinkler systems and portable water tanks, which were placed at hundreds of homes in the Twisp River drainage in early August.

“Since we have more engine availability, and many times that is a better option, that is where we’re going in terms of overall strategy of protection of structures,” Cichowski said. The engine crews can be strategically placed to respond quickly to protect structures where needed, Ibarguen said.

Fire managers reported success in a persistent problem area on the southeastern edge of the Crescent Mountain Fire early this week, completing tactical burning using helicopters to slowly draw the fire down the slope above Buttermilk Creek to the road system. Hotshot crews and engines were monitoring and mopping up along a line extending from Twisp River Road to Buttermilk Butte, said Scott Schuster, operations section chief trainee.

Hotshot crews were also working on securing an area near Slate Lake on the northeast portion of the Crescent Mountain Fire that has been a source of concern. Helitack crews that had been placed on the western edge of the fire on the border of the North Cascades National Park were taken out by helicopter Monday (Sept. 3) and the area was being monitored by air.

Level 3 evacuations (go now) remained in place as of Tuesday afternoon for residents west of the Little Bridge Creek intersection with Twisp River Road, and a Level 2 evacuation was in effect for residents west of Newby Creek Road to Little Bridge Creek Road.

Security guards were stationed at a roadblock at the Little Bridge Creek intersection to monitor people entering and leaving the Level 3 evacuation area. Maurice Goodall, Okanogan County emergency manager, said the evacuation would remain in place until fire threatening that area was determined to be fully secured. Although some people may be inconvenienced by the roadblock, Goodall said the security guards told him that area residents had given them cookies.

McLeod Fire

The McLeod Fire burning northeast of Mazama was reported in “excellent shape” early this week with strong lines on the eastern perimeter along Eightmile Road and the southern perimeter along Sweetgrass Butte. The majority of work is taking place in the Gate Creek and Yellowjacket area, creating a fire line toward the direction of Setting Sun Mountain.

There was some movement of the fire in recent days westward toward Lost River, and helicopters were used to drop water to slow its movement, Schuster said.

The McLeod fire was in such good shape that “suppression repair” activities were expected to begin this week, said Cichowski. Crews will begin repairing the damage caused by bulldozers and other heavy equipment used to create fire lines, removing logs and vegetation and recontouring slopes, he said.

“We’re winding down in a lot of respects [on the McLeod fire] but we’re not taking our eyes off it,” Cichowski said.

Fire managers are also monitoring the Holman Fire, burning about 19 miles northwest of Mazama in the Pasayten Wilderness. The fire started Aug. 16 and is about 300 acres, but is not growing much, Cichowski said. The Holman fire forced the closure of 17.5 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail starting near Slate Peak Lookout, although the Pacific Crest Trail Association has announced a detour to continue to the northern terminus of the trail.

When the fires first ignited in late July and early August, competition for firefighting resources was much greater because of the number of fires burning throughout the West. As the fire season begins to wind down, the fires in the Methow Valley are now able to get more support.

As of early this week the fires had five large and four medium size helicopters that deliver water or retardant, and two light helicopters used for reconnaissance and support, said Ibarguen.

Fire managers also have seven fixed-wing planes available, including a DC-10 capable of carrying up to 9,000 gallons of retardant, an MD-87 and a BAE-146, each with a 3,000-gallon capacity. The planes all fly from Moses Lake, where they refuel and take on retardant. In addition, the fire has access to two CL-414 amphibious scooper planes that scoop water from the Columbia River near Pateros.

The firefighting effort has also gotten a boost from additional crews and vehicles. Over the past few days 20 additional engines, eight water tenders and eight 20-person hand crews have arrived to fight the fires, Ibarguen said.

The Crescent Mountain Fire was started by lightning on July 29 about 21 miles west of Twisp. Over the past week, it grew by about 3,700 acres to 46,650 acres. As of Tuesday, it was 37 percent contained and had 878 people assigned to it, 283 more than a week ago.

The McLeod Fire started by lightning on Aug. 11 about 8 miles north of Mazama. Over the past week, it grew by about 850 acres to 22,511 acres. As of Tuesday, it was 35 percent contained and had 397 people assigned to it, 34 more than a week ago.

Smoke from the fires continues to periodically settle in the valley, creating unhealthy air quality.

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