Cause of Sunday fires is under investigation
By Marcy Stamper
About two dozen hand crews, two helicopters with water buckets, a bulldozer and 10 smokejumpers (on foot) attacked at least two spot fires southeast of Twisp on Sunday afternoon (June 21).
The fires were reported at 2 p.m. after they sent up a significant plume of smoke. Crews from Okanogan County Fire District 6 were first on scene, according to Chief Don Waller.
Within a couple of hours, the fires were mainly smoldering on charred hillsides but were still attended by fire crews. Bucket drops continued on at least one more-persistent blaze.
The fires had grown to 9.5 acres before being contained at about 8 p.m. on Sunday night, said Waller. “That proves it’s really dry. It burned really well and there was hardly any wind behind it,” he said.
Firefighters and law enforcement officers at the scene said there were four or more fires, but Waller said there were just two separate fires — one on the hillside above Lower Beaver Creek Road between Highway 20 and Finley Canyon Road, and one on the south side of the highway within the next mile heading east. The fires did not appear to be contiguous.
The fire above Lower Beaver Creek Road burned within several yards of a residence on Finley Canyon. Nathan Preston, who lives in the house, said he rushed home after getting an urgent call while at work at Hank’s Harvest Foods in Twisp. With firefighters building fire lines and cutting trees on the hillside just west of the house, Preston said he felt somewhat reassured.
A bulldozer cut a fire line across an adjacent field of dry grass. The majority of the vegetation in the area consisted of grasses and shrubs.
Police were directing traffic for a short stretch on Highway 20, where the south lane was closed to allow crews to work on one fire, which was burning on the slope next to the highway. A second house sits on the ridge above where that fire was burning. Neither structure was damaged.
The fires burned very near an area damaged severely in the Carlton Complex Fire last summer, but did not burn ground that was scorched last year, said Waller.
Crews from Fire District 6, the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and U.S. Forest Service smokejumpers, along with law enforcement officers from the county, Twisp and Winthrop, were all on scene Sunday afternoon.
In addition to Waller and Assistant Fire Chief Cody Acord, District 6 had three engines, two brush rigs and two tenders at the fire, according to Waller. DNR had two supervisory personnel, three contract engines, two helicopters and a bulldozer, he said. The U.S. Forest Service sent the smokejumpers, according to Matt Desimone, acting fire management officer for the Methow Valley Ranger District.
Also on Sunday afternoon, further east on Highway 20 at a campground near the South Summit on the Loup, Forest Service firefighters conducted a smoke check. They found two dozen fires in campfire rings, all of which were attended, said Desimone.
DNR is investigating the cause of the Lower Beaver Creek fires, according to Janet Pearce, the agency’s communications manager. “That tells it wasn’t lighting,” she said, since all lightning strikes are recorded by monitoring devices. But the cause could be anything — from a powerline to a car muffler, cigarette or person, she said.
Pearce said the forecast for the coming weekend includes considerable lightning across the state. There have already been 306 wildfire starts throughout Washington in 2015, according to DNR.
DNR has extended its burn ban to cover the entire state as of Monday (June 22). A ban east of the Cascades had already been declared last week.
The statewide burn ban applies to state forests, state parks and forestlands under DNR fire protection. It prohibits all outdoor burning, except recreational fires in approved fire pits within designated campgrounds.
The statewide burn ban will run through Sept. 30. Okanogan County commissioners declared a countywide ban last week, which prohibits all agricultural burning and outdoor burning of yard waste. Gas- and charcoal-fired barbecues are allowed.
Fireworks are illegal on all DNR-protected lands and throughout the county.