North Cascades fires largely contained
By Marcy Stamper
Several large wildfires ignited by lightning last week are still burning and have the potential for significant growth in the lower Methow Valley, northeastern Okanogan County and near Chelan.
A half-dozen smaller blazes were attacked over the weekend and have been declared contained or are in mop-up stage, according to Meg Trebon, assistant fire management officer for fuels with the Methow Valley Ranger District.
The lightning strikes were on Wednesday and Friday (Aug. 12 and 14). A state of emergency has been declared in Okanogan, Douglas and Chelan counties.
The largest fire in the Methow Valley vicinity is the Black Canyon Fire, which is actively burning in timber, brush and short grass about 8 miles west of Pateros, high on the ridge above Black Canyon.
Ignited Friday morning by lightning, with strong winds and extremely dry conditions, the fire grew exponentially Friday afternoon from 10 to 2,000 acres, according to Brian Lawatch, a fire information officer with Pacific Northwest Incident Management Team 2. Conditions in Black Canyon on Friday were so extreme that they had to pull firefighters out of the area, said Trebon.
As of Tuesday, the Black Canyon Fire had merged with a smaller fire near McFarland Creek and was more than 6,000 acres. There was a respite in growth on Monday, with the fire “sitting down real nice,” according to incident commander Kevin Griffee, who spoke to about 30 area residents at an informal — and sometimes emotional — community meeting that evening at Alta Lake State Park.
The fire is expected to grow toward the north and northeast as winds pick up midweek. It has been spreading through crowning and torching in trees, and by extreme spotting, said Lawatch.
The main part of the fire is south of Black Canyon Road, with some burning on the Squaw Creek ridge north of the road.
The fire threatens 462 structures, crops and powerlines, according to the deputy state fire marshal. State mobilization was authorized for the fire on Tuesday.
Fires in the lower Methow Valley Ranger District are common because the region has the most continuous fuels, the driest conditions and the most wind, said Trebon.
Most of the firefighting at Black Canyon will be done from the air because it is not safe to send in ground crews, said Lawatch. On Monday, smoke in the area was so heavy that helicopter drops and reconnaissance flights had to be halted, said Griffee.
Firefighters are also building fire lines beyond the perimeter of the fire. They are concentrating on protecting homes and structures and on keeping the fire away from Highway 153.
There were about 40 personnel assigned to the fire on Monday but the fire camp at Alta Lake had just a small crew that night, since most resources had been devoted to Chelan, where homes have burned and more are directly threatened. “All the resources are tapped out, and there is nothing available” for Black Canyon and another fire south of Alta Lake at Antoine Creek, said Griffee.
After Griffee explained that homes were burning in Chelan and throughout the region, tempers flared as a few people at the meeting demanded that crews be pulled off those fires to protect their own homes. Dozens of homes burned in Pateros and Alta Lake last summer.
North Cascades fires largely contained
Almost all of the dozen fires that started within the Methow Valley Ranger District were either contained or in mop-up phase as of early this week. Two fires near popular recreation areas — the Cutthroat Fire, which was visible from the North Cascades Highway; and the Tatie Peak Fire, near Slate Peak above Harts Pass — both started by lightning on Aug. 12. The conditions at Tatie Peak prompted Methow Valley District Ranger Mike Liu to close Harts Pass Road — the only way in and out — on Friday but they were able to reopen the road over the weekend.
The Cutthroat Fire was in heavy timber with a lot of dead and downed material. Fire managers with the ranger district were concerned that it could easily spread to other trees through torching and spotting, said Trebon.
Because of the dense understory material, fires like the one near Cutthroat are extremely difficult to control from the ground, since crews would have had to remove low branches to create an effective fire line, said Trebon.
They got “really critical” help on the second day of the fire from a helicopter with a water bucket, said Trebon. Firefighters also managed to divert a trickle of water from a nearby water source to keep the area moist. That fire was declared out and crews were demobilized on Sunday (Aug. 16).
Smokejumpers worked on the Tatie Peak Fire over the past several days to create a fire line and contain the fire at 100 acres. It is now being monitored, said Trebon. Crews were helped by heavy mountain rains that accompanied the storm that sparked the fires in Chelan and Black Canyon.
Smokejumpers attacked a fire on the South Fork of Gold Creek, keeping it from growing beyond a quarter-acre, said Trebon. Growth was also minimal because the fire was sheltered from the wind, said Trebon.
A fire near Eagle Creek in the upper Twisp River drainage was contained at less than 1 acre and in mop-up phase on Monday, said Trebon.
Smokejumpers also helped contain a fire northwest of Falls Creek in the Chewuch drainage, and another fire in the Pasayten Wilderness, said Trebon.
There was a new start on Tuesday about 2 miles west of Silver Star Mountain and firefighters were en route.
Five fires called the Okanogan Complex — more than 12,000 acres altogether — are burning in northern and eastern Okanogan County, near Conconully, Oroville and Riverside, The largest, the Lime Belt Fire, is of greatest concern because of risks to Conconully and surrounding areas. Evacuations for people east of Conconully and in Riverside were issued on Tuesday and some area roads were closed, according to Okanogan County Emergency Manager Maurice Goodall.
There were about 400 firefighters working on the Okanogan Complex, plus a small group on the Beaver Lake Fire in a forested area west of Omak.
The North Star Fire, burning near Nespelem on the Colville Reservation, is more than 30,000 acres and people in the vicinity have been advised to evacuate.
Significant progress was made on the Reach, Cagle and Antoine Creek fires — now almost 63,500 acres and known as the Chelan Complex — on Monday. The fire was 30 percent contained as of Tuesday morning.
There have been 32 structures, including homes and outbuildings, lost in Chelan County and another 17 in Douglas County. Many homes are still at risk, and about 3,000 people remain under an evacuation order in and around Chelan.
Fire managers were also cautiously eyeing the area around Bridgeport, which remained under a level 2 evacuation order because of the extremely dry fuels and tendency toward high winds in the area, said Lawatch.
Okanogan County Fire District 6 responded to a fire burning in brush and cottonwood trees about 5:30 p.m. Friday in a field off Highway 153 about one mile south of Lower Beaver Creek Road. The Department of Natural Resources was investigating the cause of the fire.
Resources stretched thin
With large fires in most Western states and the entire country on the highest level for firefighters, crews are spread thin and are being directed to the most urgent situations, said Lawatch.
Dispatchers have been fielding many calls for smoke checks, some of which have been false alarms, according to Robin DeMario, a public affairs specialist with the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.
Over the weekend emergency responders were inundated with phone calls reporting smoke throughout the Wenatchee Valley and the Leavenworth area, she said in a press release.
“People are seeing smoke from the Wolverine Fire and from fires burning near Chelan, in the Methow Valley and on the Colville Indian Reservation,” said Richy Harrod, a deputy fire staff officer with the forest.
Trebon said that people called in sightings of smoke over the past few days and that the Forest Service tries to do aerial or ground reconnaissance. One of the six was a new start; the other five were false alarms, she said.
“There are definitely a lot of fires for them to work on — it’s pretty intense out there,” said Lawatch.
The National Guard is arriving this week to help protect residences throughout the region. Assistance has also been requested internationally, with calls going out to Canada and Australia, said Griffee.
Joanna Bastian contributed reporting for this story.