By Marcy Stamper
Now burning more than 200,000 acres, the Okanogan Complex Fire, which includes the fire that started on the Twisp River on Wednesday (Aug. 19), is the No. 1 priority in the country.
The complex includes five fires, with the Tunk Block Fire, burning south of Tonasket and north of Omak and Riverside, accounting for more than half of the total acreage. That fire almost doubled in size, spreading to the south in 40-mile-per-hour wind gusts on Friday (Aug. 21), according to Joe Anderson, a public information officer for the Okanogan Complex.
The Twisp River Fire grew slightly on Friday, from 8,402 acres to 8,732 acres. The fire was burning actively on Saturday (Aug. 22) on the western flank toward Thompson Ridge and Sun Mountain, according to Anderson. The other sides were not actively burning on Saturday, he said. There is no containment.
Aerial fire crews bombarded the Twisp River fire with 19 loads of retardant on Friday and firefighters continue to build fire lines and do selective burning to consume remaining fuel within the perimeter, said Anderson.
They are sharing air resources with all 5 fires within the complex, so they may not have the same air support today, he said.
Fire officials were not available to provide more details about what areas have been burned by the Twisp River Fire and where they are focusing their efforts.
Over the past two days, as fires rapidly approached communities, Okanogan County Emergency Management issued evacuation orders for most of the towns and cities in the county, including Twisp, Winthrop, parts of Omak and Okanogan, Tonasket and Conconully. The orders for Twisp and Winthrop were lowered to a level 2 on Friday afternoon, meaning to be ready to leave if necessary.
After strong winds all day Friday and even stronger gusts, Saturday’s conditions for the entire complex were more favorable, with lighter winds, temperatures in the 70s and 80s, and relative humidity in the teens and 20s, giving them a chance to make progress on all the blazes, said Anderson.
There are currently 973 personnel working on the Okanogan Complex. Additional firefighters are arriving in the U.S. from Australia and New Zealand and will be dispatched where they are most needed across the country, said Anderson.
Other Okanogan Complex fires
Crews made good progress on the northern fire line of the Tunk Block Fire on Friday and hope to contain the southern flank within a couple of days, said Anderson. It was 15 percent contained as of Saturday morning. The Tunk Block and Lime Belt fires were expected to merge.
At a media briefing at the Okanogan Fairgrounds on Friday, incident commander Todd Pechota said they were most concerned about the southern flank of all the fires in the complex, which were completely open and threatened by the high winds. Pechota’s Rocky Mountain Type 1 team took over the fire on Friday morning.
They were focused on the safety of firefighters and the public, critical infrastructure such as the powerline and roads, and residences.
In Friday’s conditions, Pechota said it would be difficult to accomplish all objectives to protect infrastructure and homes. “With a change in the weather, we’ll have an opportunity to go on the offensive,” he said.
Particularly with the strong and shifting winds, conditions were changing rapidly, sometimes every few minutes, said Todd Magliocca, operations section chief for the Okanogan County emergency operations center.
In his first 24 hours on the fire, Pechota said he had seen the wind blow from all 360 degrees. Firefighters would start working on one flank and 10 minutes later the wind would shift and they would have to withdraw or change their strategy.
They continue to look for places to secure a fire line, said Pechota. “You eat an elephant one bite at a time,” he said.
Emergency managers confirmed that residences and other structures have been burned in the various branches of the Okanogan Complex but could not provide a preliminary count because it is still not safe to enter the burned areas.
Law enforcement officers with the U.S. Forest Service have begun their investigation of the cause of the Twisp River Fire. They have been looking at areas on Twisp River Road near Woods Canyon Road where the fire originated, about 6 miles west of Twisp. Anyone who witnessed the start of the fire or has other information is asked to call (509) 341-1657.
The other fires in the complex are the Beaver Lake fire, burning north of the Loup Loup summit. The fire, at 21,400 acres on Saturday morning, was threatening structures and the transmission line. That fire grew almost 7,000 acres on Friday, spotting to 40 acres on the south side of the road, said Anderson.
On Saturday, Highway 20 over the Loup remained closed to traffic, as did the North Cascades Highway, which is closed because of a fire near Newhalem.
The Lime Belt/Blue Lake Fire, burning near Conconully and south toward Okanogan is 73,250 acres and 20 percent contained.
The Black Canyon and McFarland Creek fires, at 6,700 acres on Saturday, are being managed as part of the Chelan Complex. As of Saturday, firefighters were constructing fire lines immediately adjacent to the fire in the upper reaches of Squaw and McFarland Creeks.
The portions of the Chelan Complex within 3 miles of Chelan as well as all areas east of the Columbia River are completely contained. Overall, the fire is 35 percent contained, although some areas, including First Creek near Lake Chelan, were burning actively and spreading on Saturday.
The North Star Fire, burning near Nespelem on the Colville Reservation, is being managed separately from the Okanogan Complex. That fire was 126,500 acres as of Saturday.
Power restored to most of Methow Valley after 12-hour outage
Power was out in the Methow and Okanogan valleys for about 12 hours from Friday afternoon until early Saturday morning. The outage affected customers in Twisp, Winthrop, Mazama, Carlton and Malott, according to the Okanogan County Public Utility District (PUD). Several structures burned but only two had to be replaced, according to the PUD.
There are still active fires along the transmission corridor, which could cause another outage, according to David Gottula, general manager of the Okanogan County Electric Cooperative.
Power was still out on upper Twisp River Road west of Elbow Coulee Road, where the fire heavily damaged power lines, said Gottula. The co-op has not been able to assess damage on all of the line because of fire activity. The co-op expects customers in the upper Twisp River to be without power for several more days, said Gottula.
An additional crew is arriving from Inland Power Cooperative in Spokane this weekend to assist coop crews.
Elsewhere in the county, about 500 transmission structures have been damaged, leaving 600 PUD customers without power.
The Methow Valley News will continue to provide updates as more information becomes available.