Saturday weather helps, but fires still active on northwest flank of Twisp River Fire and in Okanogan Valley
By Marcy Stamper
Crews working to control the Twisp River Road Fire made good use of water and retardant drops to cool the active northwest flank of the fire near Thompson Ridge on Saturday (Aug. 22), until heavy smoke in the afternoon made it unsafe to fly.
As the perimeter cooled, hand crews were digging fire lines and burning out pockets of vegetation still remaining within the area, according to Mike Tombolato, branch director for the fire.
The updates on the fire came at a jam-packed meeting Saturday night in the Methow Valley Community Center, where some 350 people heard from 20 elected officials, fire chiefs and first responders about the status of the fire and community preparedness.
As of Sunday morning (Aug. 23), the total acreage for all fires in Okanogan County had set a new record, surpassing last year’s Carlton Complex Fire as the largest in state history. Combined, the fires had burned 367,206 acres – 227,206 acres for the Okanogan Complex and the 140,000 acres for the North Star Fire near Nespelem. The Carlton Complex burned 268,764 acres.
The south flank of the Twisp River Road Fire is completely controlled and in mop-up phase, according to Tombolato. That flank extends along 6 miles of Twisp River Road from approximately Myer Creek Road to town. “We’re confident about holding it,” he said.
But a southeastern wind on Saturday created problems for fire crews, pushing the fire toward Thompson Ridge. It had grown by 1,241 acres to 9,973 acres by Sunday morning, according to Suzanne Flory, a public information officer with the Okanogan Complex, which is managing the Twisp River Fire.
Crews are also working their way on the northern flank of the fire along Elbow Coulee Road, where the fire burned high on the ridges, consuming the area around Aspen Lake. It also burned in the hills around Frost Road and the adjacent Methow Wildlife Area.
Three 20-person hot-shot crews were expected to arrive on Sunday to help build fire lines on the fire, said Flory.
The northwest flank is burning near fire lines created last summer for the Rising Eagle Fire, which create a natural fuel break that crews hope to be able to utilize, said Tombolato.
They hope to control the fire at Thompson Ridge but are relying on Little Bridge Creek and numerous tributaries as contingencies, he said.
They also expect to be aided by fuels treatments near Little Bridge Creek, said Tombolato.
As of Saturday night, the fire has not burned the Pine Forest development or Sun Mountain area, said Tombolato.
MUCH WORK AHEAD
While the other fires in the Okanogan Complex are larger, the greatest growth was on the Twisp River and Beaver Lake fires on Saturday, said Flory.
Because the Twisp River Road Fire has been deemed one of the highest priorities in the country, they are receiving considerable air support, including C-130s, DC-10s and helicopters, which have been dropping retardant and water, said Tombolato.
The high priority was assigned because firefighters have demonstrated they have control of the fire and “can put it to bed quickly,” he said. They have requested more hand crews to back up the air support, he said.
Tombolato estimated that crews building fire line have at least two weeks of work ahead of them. That prediction is for completing fire lines but not for containment. As of Sunday, the fire was zero-percent contained.
The fire still poses a risk to the upper Twisp River drainage, from Little Bridge Creek to the Buttermilk area, said Tombolato. On Sunday, all of Twisp River Road was officially still under a level-3, immediate-evacuation order, while other parts of the Methow Valley had been reduced to a level 2.
From its start at 3 acres at about 1 p.m. on Wednesday (Aug. 19), the fire moved extremely quickly despite almost no wind, Okanogan County Fire District Chief Don Waller said at the community meeting. “Fuels are so dry that we say a grasshopper could start a fire,” he said.
“Your environment is in an extreme situation. It will burn freely, given a chance,” said Tombolato.
Fire District 6 worked with other agencies to prepare fire lines on Wednesday night for a burnout to protect the town of Twisp, said Waller. The burnout worked perfectly, although sometimes they don’t, acknowledged Tombolato. “The local fire guys did a great job.”
OTHER OKANOGAN COMPLEX FIRES
Weather on Saturday helped crews combat the other four fires in the Okanogan Complex, said Flory.
As of Sunday morning, the Tunk Block Fire burning between Tonasket and Omak was more than 128,000 acres and 15 percent contained. While crews made good overall progress, part of the fire crossed Highway 155 on the Colville Reservation, said Flory.
The Lime Belt/Blue Lake Fire, burning near Conconully and Okanogan, was 77,785 acres and 20 percent contained.
The Beaver Lake Fire, burning north of the Loup Loup summit, was almost 26,000 acres and zero percent contained on Sunday. It continues to threaten structures and the Loup Loup transmission line, said Flory.
Crews working on the Beaver Lake Fire plan to build a direct fire line that would tie into U.S. Forest Service Road 42, which leads north from the Loup Loup summit toward Conconully, said Flory.
There were 1,041 personnel assigned to the Okanogan Complex on Sunday, and more are expected. Still, with the high demand around the country, they are having trouble getting all the resources requested, said Flory. They have help with structure protection from Washington state mobilization, she said.
Favorable winds on Saturday also helped crews fighting fires at Black Canyon and McFarland Creek, which have merged with other fires in the Chelan Complex. The blaze around Black Canyon is moving into areas burned by the Carlton Complex Fire, so fire behavior has been reduced, according to Kristin Garrison, a public information officer for the Chelan Complex.
The northern boundary is near the intersection of the South Fork Gold Creek and McFarland Forest Service roads, according to the deputy incident commander for the fire.
The complex is at 35-percent containment.
RESILIENCY, ROADS, POWER OUTAGES
Much of the message at the Saturday-night meeting focused on the resiliency of the community. It served in part as an opportunity for a community memorial and tribute to the three firefighters who perished and others who were injured during the initial attack on the Twisp River Road Fire.
Don Becker, maintenance supervisor for the Methow Valley for the Washington State Department of Transportation, explained that road closures can be caused by conditions in other parts of the state, where an evacuation route needs to be preserved if other roads are not open. National Guard troops are helping protect barricades because some motorists were violating the blockades or becoming argumentative, said Becker.
Twisp Police Chief Paul Budrow said he and two deputies from Twisp and Winthrop have also been assisted by four troops from the National Guard, and by law-enforcement officers from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and other state agencies. They expect 50 more National Guard troops to arrive to help throughout the county, said Budrow.
Police officers are patrolling evacuated areas to ensure that anyone traveling there has a reason to be there, said Budrow.
Crews from the Okanogan County Electric Cooperative are still verifying the extent of damage to their infrastructure. The powerline that runs from Hoot ’n’ Holler to Elbow Coulee and upper Twisp River Road was completely destroyed. They expect to have an estimate of how long it will take to repair the line on Monday (Aug. 24), according to David Gottula, general manager for the coop.
The Okanogan County Public Utility District is still assessing the extent of outages for their customers in the Okanogan Valley, but damage is widespread, according to Dan Boettger, director of regulatory and environmental affairs.
The Okanogan County Emergency Operations Center is now open 24 hours a day. Their phone number is (509) 422-7348. Assistance is available in Spanish at (509) 422-2422.