Photos by Ann McCreary
A hillside near Buttermilk Butte shows a mosaic of burned, scorched and unburned forest in the wake of the Crescent Mountain Fire, which continued to smolder near the Lake Chelan-Sawtooth Wilderness boundary.

Repair efforts, damage assessments continue amid smoke

From a vantage point on top of Buttermilk Butte, the remnants of the Crescent Mountain Fire could be seen last week sending up scattered plumes of white smoke as the fire smolders and creeps along forested slopes and in drainages near the Lake Chelan-Sawtooth Wilderness area to the south.

The fire was butted up against a fresh snow line near the top of nearby peaks. “It’s pretty much stayed put” for the past two weeks, said Dan Robbins, incident commander for the fire from the Methow Valley Ranger District.

The area around Buttermilk Butte, southwest of Twisp, was a key battleground in the fight to contain the Crescent Mountain Fire, and evidence of the battle will be visible for years.

Miles of fire lines were cut by bulldozers and by hand through the forests on the way up to Buttermilk Butte, and on the butte itself. Swaths of small trees and vegetation along U.S. Forest Service Road No. 43, from Twisp River Road to the butte, were hacked back to strengthen the road as a fire break.

As part of the work to repair damage to the landscape from firefighting efforts, the bare soil of fire lines has been covered over by branches, brush, rocks and boulders, and water bars have been dug to reduce runoff and erosion.

Along the road toward Buttermilk Butte and on top of some ridges in the area, wide ribbons of bright coral-colored retardant are visible. The retardant is biodegradable, and will fade away over time, Robbins said.

Vegetation is burned to the edge of the road along some stretches, where firefighters lit burnouts to reduce fuels in the path of the fire if it approached the road. In areas within the fire perimeter where blackened trees are near roads, crews have identified trees that pose a hazard of falling across the roadway and cut them down. The tree cutting — called “snagging” — will need to continue for years to come in the burned areas, Robbins said.

A bright ribbon of retardant, put down to fortify the road as a fire line, is visible along a section of the road to Buttermilk Butte.

Crucial burnout

From a vantage point overlooking Scaffold Ridge, which is further up the Twisp River drainage from Buttermilk Butte, Robbins pointed out a slope blackened by a burnout. That strategic burnout on Scaffold Ridge was crucial in preventing the fire from moving into the main drainage of the Twisp River, he said.

Where the fire came through the forest, some areas are burned to cinders, with blackened tree trunks rising out of white ash. Those severely burned areas are interspersed with areas where much of the understory vegetation is gone and trees are scorched or partially burnt, but appear likely to survive. Other areas are untouched by fire.

“It’s a mosaic. It’s a mixed bag as far as severity. Some of it is severely burned but a lot of it is not,” Robbins said. Looking from Buttermilk Butte over the fires on nearby mountainsides and in drainages, Robbins said the fire that is continuing to burn is doing what forest fires are supposed to do.

“Anything that’s burning right now is basically beneficial, and natural. There is barely any open flame. It’s smoldering and chewing its way” through fuels on the forest floor, Robbins said. That means those areas will be less prone to extreme fire in the future.

The expansive view from top of Buttermilk Butte shows the mosaic pattern left by the fire in the forests below — broad bands of blackened trees interspersed with less badly burned trees in shades of brown, and unburned swaths of deep green trees.

A steep fire line climbs a hill next to the road to Buttermilk Butte. Branches and brush have been laid on the line to reduce erosion.

Updates

The Forest Service issued a final update on the Crescent Mountain and McLeod fires last week. Other than the fires smoldering near the Lake Chelan Sawtooth Wilderness, fire activity is minimal on both fires, which burned 77,020 acres.

Road and trail closures remain in place in both fire areas, however. Road crews using graders and water trucks are working to repair damage resulting from the fire. Graders were deepening ditches along the side of Buttermilk Butte Road last week to handle potential runoff, Robins said.

The Forest Service warned that hazards will persist in the burned areas, including falling trees, stump holes or root channels that are hard to see or could still be smoldering, rolling rocks and mudslides or debris flows — especially after rain and freeze-thaw cycles.

Many miles of trails in the Twisp River corridor remain closed. Some of the most intensely burned areas are in the upper part of the drainage, above the Poplar Flat campground, where the fire crossed the road and burned with greater severity, said Robbins. Information on trails in the forest can be found at www.fs.usda.gov/okawen.

North Cascades National Park last week announced that several trails and camps that were closed during the Crescent Mountain Fire have reopened. They include Boulder Creek, South Pass, Purple Creek and Summit. Open camps include Hooter, Rennie, Reynolds hiker and stock camps, Juanita hiker and stock camps, Dee Dee Lakes and Triplet Lakes cross-country zones.

A Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) team has completed its field work in the Crescent Mountain and McLeod fire areas and was preparing a report on potential post-fire impacts, including increased downstream runoff and debris flows.

Blackened trees mark an area of severe burn near the top of Buttermilk Butte.

In many areas of the Crescent Mountain Fire undergrowth burned but trees survived.

Logs, the product of trees cut for a fire line, are stacked by the road before being removed.

After the fire, dead trees that pose a hazard of falling across roadways are cut, creating “snags.”

A grader on Forest Service Road #43 deepens a ditch along the road to handle future runoff.