Some fared better than others during recent emergency
By Laurelle Walsh
In the second consecutive summer of fire, smoke, road closures and evacuations, Methow Valley residents were better prepared, officials did a better job communicating to the public, and information was easier to obtain.
That’s according to Sandi Scheinberg, preparedness coordinator for MethowReady, the homegrown organization charged with helping the people of the Methow be better prepared and more resilient during emergencies. “We are miles ahead of last year, and we’ll continue to make it better,” said Scheinberg.
As soon as fires began cropping up in the region, starting in July with the Chelan Complex Fire, area residents and concerned people outside the valley began referring to InciWeb and Facebook for fire information online. When the Okanogan Complex fires erupted in the Okanogan Valley, near Loup Loup Pass, and outside of Twisp, information simply could not come fast enough for many worried Methow Valley residents.
People turned to public Facebook groups such as “Methow Valley Fire Information” (2,448 members), and the closed group, “Methow Valley Local Topics of Interest” (3,788 members), for current information from “people on the ground,” one Winthrop-area resident said. “People are reporting what they’re seeing in their neighborhood,” which was better than what the Methow Valley News or Department of Emergency Management could do, she said.
“Naturally, a lot of people have been frustrated, but a lot of people recognize the improvements and how much we’ve gained,” said Julie Muyllaert, public information officer with Aero Methow Rescue Service. “I’ve been hearing more positive than negative feedback from folks.”
Muyllaert and Scheinberg are both with Methow Valley Long Term Recovery (MVLTR), formed after last year’s Carlton Complex Fire to aid in the recovery and rebuilding process, and headed up by leaders of vital community organizations. Communications failures during the 2014 emergency was one of the deficits that MVLTR set out to correct.
The MVLTR communications sub-committee identified the Methow Valley News and KTRT radio as the primary places the public should go for information, and met with “the two Dons” (Don Nelson at the Methow Valley News and Don Ashford at KTRT) to create a plan for distributing information during the next disaster, Muyllaert said.
And for evacuation notices or weather warnings, “we have for the first time the Okanogan County emergency alert system which, while not perfect, is a huge leap ahead in terms of communications,” Scheinberg said. “It’s a massive undertaking, and they only recently got it up and running, so there is tweaking to the system, but that’s to be expected. It will continue to be refined and improved.”
“If people have either a phone, car, or computer, they should be able to get daily updates on fire status,” Scheinberg added, including non-electronic sources of information such as fire information boards, community meetings, and neighborhood networks like those being formed by MethowReady.
Evacuations went smoothly
“In my eyes everything went incredibly smoothly; there were no hiccups during the emergency,” said Twisp Police Chief Paul Budrow, who was in charge of evacuations as the Twisp River Fire approached town limits on Aug. 19. “I couldn’t ask for anything smoother.”
Twisp implemented evacuation procedures that were part of the town’s emergency plan: Budrow drove the streets in his patrol car announcing Level 3 evacuations; volunteers from MethowReady went door to door; a “Nixel Alert” was texted to the phones of people who had signed up for it through the Twisp Police Department; and the police chief got the message out to ham radio operators around the valley, he said.
Town officials immediately put up an information reader board in front of Town Hall, as well as one in front of Hank’s Harvest Foods. “Twisp’s reader boards were up that same day, before Incident Command came in with their boards,” Budrow said. The boards directed people to the Okanogan County Department of Emergency Management call line and website, he said.
Some people, like Winthrop resident Mary Gray, were nowhere near town when evacuations were ordered. Gray was hiking with a group of friends at Scatter Lake near the end of Twisp River Road on the day of the Twisp River Fire. They returned to the trailhead around 5 p.m. and found a hand-written note from Methow Valley District Ranger Mike Liu informing them to evacuate via Buttermilk Road, Black Pine Lake and Libby Creek Road.
As they drove out, Gray’s group encountered one man driving in the opposite direction “who didn’t seem to know about the fire,” and told another party from Oregon, “who were looking at the map, confused,” to follow their car to Highway 153, Gray said.
As the fast-moving wildfire moved up valley, Winthrop was ordered to evacuate too. “In less than an hour downtown went from completely packed to empty,” said Winthrop Town Clerk Michelle Gaines. “It wasn’t chaotic. Everyone did it quickly and efficiently,” Gaines said.
Although Winthrop had no specific evacuation plan in place, things seemed to go smoothly, according to Mayor Sue Langdalen. “We had talked about it before, and met with MethowReady about setting up a neighborhood watch,” Langdalen said. “It must have put something in our minds. We were prepared in a different sort of way.”
While deputy marshal Ken Bajema announced the evacuation from his police vehicle, the mayor and town council members went door-to-door and through the business district. From Town Hall, Gaines notified lodging and campground owners by phone, as well as businesses on Horizon Flats.
Gaines also drove to the Winthrop park and notified people there. “There were some cars parked at the Barn who had come down from Washington Pass,” as well as people who had been turned around on Highway 20 because of the fire closure further west, Gaines said. She led several caravans to Twisp-Winthrop Eastside Road, which was the designated evacuation route out of town. “Signs directing people to East County Road would have been nice,” Gaines said.
Initial evacuation orders were unclear regarding which areas outside of the two towns were supposed to evacuate. Many people said they never received notification on their landline from the county’s reverse 911 alert system, which alerted only those cell phones preregistered with the Everbridge system.
“We encourage everyone to sign up for Okanogan County emergency alerts,” Gaines said, adding that people should already be prepared for the possibility of evacuation when wildfires are in the area.
Residents of Mazama were not specifically told to evacuate; others in the Winthrop area chose not to leave, feeling safer in their homes than joining the line of cars exiting the valley. And many people began returning to the valley before evacuation levels were lifted.
“As a first responder, I really appreciated the people who stayed away” while the evacuation level was still at 3, said Muyllaert. “We as a community need to have a conversation about expectations during Level 3 evacuation,” she added. “In my opinion, if people choose to stay or return early, they shouldn’t expect to have somebody around who can get them information.”
For those who aren’t on Facebook, or don’t use computers at all, getting information during the first four days of the fire was difficult. “We have to come up with a plan for communicating with those people,” Langdalen said. “Communications need to be designed to be inclusive of everybody,” said Scheinberg.
Marlene Temple, who re-opened the Winthrop Visitor Information Center (VIC) on Sunday, Aug. 23, said at that time she was getting her information through word-of-mouth or from TV news. “I have heard from no-one official,” she said that day. “I could have been here the whole time with information about highways and shelters if only I had the information.”
A fire information board was brought to the VIC the following day, after both Temple and Langdalen called to request one. “The woman there said she couldn’t believe we didn’t have one already,” Temple said.
Temple closed up the VIC at 4 p.m. on Aug. 19. She had heard about the closure of Highway 20 from people who came in earlier that afternoon who told her “they got clear to Newhalem and had to turn around. The place was full of people wanting to find out how to get over the mountains,” Temple said. “I shouldn’t be getting my information from visitors coming in.”
At that time, Temple knew that Winthrop was at Level 2. She learned about Level 3 from Northwest Cable News when she got home. She did not receive a phone call from Emergency Management, she said.
West Chewuch resident Bruce Runyard came into the VIC the day it re-opened looking for fire updates. “Why doesn’t local government have public information posted about escape routes and evacuation status?” Runyard wondered. “My wife and I had to drive around and look at the hills to figure out where the fire was and where it was moving.”
Runyard thought signs would be helpful, or a phone tree system. “There should be one phone line that everyone could call in to where they would get a recording with up-to-date information.” The electric co-op could have a similar information line that could be called during a power outage, Runyard added. He said he called the co-op during the 12-hour outage on Aug. 21, but there was no information on the office’s answering machine.
What about the visitors?
Lauren Ettlin of Portland, Oregon, was staying at the North Cascades Institute on Diablo Lake on Aug. 19, when she learned it was being evacuated due to the fire near Newhalem. Ettlin was told to go to Winthrop “where they said there was an evacuation center,” she recalled. Miles later, after driving through two unmanned roadblocks, Ettlin found herself in deserted downtown Winthrop with no information about what she should do. “There was no one around to even ask, no way for visitors to get information,” Ettlin said.
“Thank goodness for the pumper truck driver,” Ettlin said, crediting an Okanogan County Fire District 6 firefighter who told her how to get out of the valley via Highway 153. “I wish I could thank him.”
Gaines said she returned to the Barn parking lot several times the day of the evacuation, “to make sure we’d gotten everybody.” She left Winthrop around 6 p.m. Gaines re-opened Town Hall as usual the next day, mainly to answer phone calls and questions from people walking in. Several people in RVs came down from Highway 20, and one family of four drove over from Omak, she said. “They said there had been no road closures,” Gaines recalled. “They had no idea.” The family walked around the deserted town, took some pictures, and then left, Gaines said.
Brian and Amy Sweet kept their Cascades Outdoor Store in Winthrop open during the evacuation. “Every day we saw two or three people who were confused about what was going on,” Amy Sweet said.
Several people came in who had been in the wilderness for several days, and didn’t know about the Highway 20 closure or how to get out of the valley, according to Sweet. “They didn’t seem to know about evacuations in Twisp or Winthrop,” Sweet said. “I was really surprised there wasn’t a big notice board informing people in front of Town Hall.”
Gaines has a different point of view: “If I were telling people they were supposed to leave, I personally wouldn’t put information up downtown for people who weren’t supposed to be there.”
Dan and Sally Kuperberg, owners of the Chewuch Inn in Winthrop, heard about the evacuation from Town Hall and from the Washington State Patrol. They chose to stay, “but we didn’t give our guests that choice,” Dan Kuperberg said. The Kuperbergs found them “alternative lodging” out of the valley, and all but two parties evacuated immediately.
Those two parties were out hiking in the high country and out of cell phone range, so “they had no idea what was going on until later that evening when they drove up and we told them,” Kuperberg said.
“One thing we’ve changed since last year is we specifically ask guests for the number of the cell phone they’ll be carrying while in the valley,” Kuperberg said. “We have realized there are situations that may arise when we have to reach people while they’re away from the inn.”
To inform backcountry recreationists of fires or road and trail closures on the district, Methow Valley Ranger District rangers and trail crews post notices on trail signs, barricade closed roads, and put notes on cars parked at trailheads, according to Lead Wilderness Ranger Amber Deming.
Forest Service staff signed all cars parked at trailheads along the North Cascades Highway corridor, notifying them of Highway 20’s closure near Newhalem, according to Deming.
Backcountry rangers also collect wilderness permits to determine where parties might be located, and — if safe for the rangers — do a “trail sweep” on foot or horseback to find hikers and tell them to exit the area immediately, Deming said.