Efforts focused on rebuilding, better communications, preparedness
By Marcy Stamper and Ann McCreary
Methow Valley residents may have felt an uneasy sense of déjà vu this week as temperatures heated up and smoke drifted into the valley from British Columbia wildfires.
Three years ago on July 14, a lightning storm sparked four separate fires — three in the vicinity of Carlton and another near Pearrygin Lake at Cougar Flat. Stoked by high heat and 35-mile-per-hour winds, the fires merged together into a firestorm on July 17 that roared down the Methow Valley to Pateros, where it obliterated nearly two square blocks.
The Carlton Complex Fire eventually consumed 420 square miles and burned more than 300 residences, leaving hundreds of residents homeless and traumatized. Much of the power and communications grid was destroyed, and grazing lands and forests were blackened.
Within weeks of the fire, the valley experienced a secondary impact. Heavy summer rains washed mud and debris down hillsides and drainages burned bare of vegetation. Many residents who escaped damage from fire now faced a different disaster — homes and properties inundated with a gooey mixture of mud and ash, along with rocks, trees and debris.
“Recovery will be months and years in our future,” predicted an incident commander three years ago, as more than 1,000 firefighters were battling the wildfire.
That prediction has proved true. The Methow Valley, Pateros and the Chiliwist are still working to rebuild and recover from losses caused by fire and floods and coping with new challenges from the combined disasters.
For example, the three-month closure this year of Highway 20 over Loup Loup Pass — a result of destructive washouts — illustrates the continued vulnerability of burned areas to flooding and erosion.
At the same time, other areas are thriving, with lush grasses that have allowed ranchers to graze their livestock and thick vegetation that has stabilized many burned hillsides.
People who lost homes have rebuilt. Those with adequate insurance were often the first to start on a new home, but 22 households with no resources to rebuild now have homes constructed by the Okanogan County Long Term Recovery Group (OCLTRG) and their hundreds of volunteers.
The fire also sharpened long-standing concerns about a lack of affordable housing in the Methow Valley, an issue taken on by the Methow Valley Long Term Recovery (MVLTR). The result has been creation of the Methow Housing Trust, which aims to develop affordable housing — and to manage it so it remains affordable.
Sharpened focus, more funding
The fire not only galvanized efforts to upgrade aging emergency and communication systems, but it also helped Okanogan County and cities obtain grants to pay for those improvements. Okanogan County has replaced communications equipment on McClure Mountain with high-tech systems that will talk to mountaintop sites around the county.
The Town of Twisp received funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for back-up generators for its water systems and Town Hall. And town officials are working on plans to replace the aging Town Hall building with a new civic building that will also serve as an emergency operations center.
The Carlton Complex Fire demonstrated the importance of neighbors supporting one another, underscoring the need to establish a valley-wide system of self-reliance. It spawned a new organization, Methow Ready, which helps residents prepare to meet emergencies.
Rebuilding homes and lives
Just months after the fire, volunteers and concerned citizens who’d been helping people cope with the fire and a range of losses — from homes and outbuildings to fences and farm equipment to emotional impacts — formed an organization that would oversee recovery over the long term.
Since then, a small staff and hundreds of volunteers have built 22 homes for people who were uninsured and who met strict eligibility guidelines. The group is still working on housing for people who lost their homes in the Okanogan Complex Fire of 2015.
“We’re making a dent — it’s a big dent — with a lot of fiscal and volunteer help,” said Carlene Anders, executive director of OCLTRG.
In addition to building houses, the long-term recovery group and its partners have contributed almost $1.5 million to fill other unmet needs, such as utility hook-ups and scrap metal disposal.
Another group elected to focus on the long-term needs of the Methow Valley. MVLTR has worked for the past three years to help individuals and the community as a whole to become more resilient in the face of future disasters.
“When we started this whole thing called long-term recovery, we looked at the mess we were in during the weeks after the Carlton Complex Fire and asked, ‘What do we wish we had in place to be better prepared?’” said Jason Paulsen, who heads MVLTR.
Numerous issues rose to the top, with improved communications and coordination among the most compelling needs, he said.
Effective communications with the public before and during emergencies has also been a key focus for Maurice Goodall, Okanogan County’s emergency manager.
“Sometimes it takes a disaster to wake people up and see what’s going on. We’ve had fires, but not of the magnitude that was affected in 2014,” he said.
“One of the things that came out of 2014 was our mass-notification system,” which alerts people by text, email and phone calls about potential or impending emergencies in their area, Goodall said.
The system had just gotten up and running in the spring of 2015 when heavy rains triggered flash floods that roared down Texas Creek, Goodall said. He was able to send notifications about impending floods in the first real test of the system.
“We’re moving forward … 2014 opened our eyes. Our communication with the public and with each other is improved,” he said.
Part of that improved communication has been to simplify the way evacuation advisories are issued, Goodall said. The county still describes evacuations in terms of Level 1, 2 or 3, but also adds common language to clarify.
Level 1 means “alert,” Level 2 means “be ready” and Level 3 means “immediate evacuation.” While Level 3 indicates the most extreme danger, Goodall emphasized that a Level 1 “alert” should be taken just as seriously, and people should prepare to leave.
The Town of Twisp has also adopted a notification program called NIXLE that allows the police department to share emergency-alert information with citizens who are registered, said Mayor Soo Ing-Moody.
Okanogan County also upgraded the emergency-communications system used by law enforcement, firefighters and other first responders. The new system uses microwave transmission instead of physical wires, which were vulnerable to damage from fires or other natural disasters. It can send signals from one mountaintop to another and will give emergency managers the capacity to monitor all functions.
The McClure emergency equipment, along with phone service and radio broadcasts, is now better-protected from wildfire, thanks to a $5,000 grant to the Methow Valley Ranger District from the MVLTR and volunteers from Team Rubicon, who thinned and piled fire-prone trees on about 100 acres on the mountain in June.
Land recovery — and vulnerability
The state of landscape recovery is variable. Some areas support abundant grasses and vigorous stands of trees, but others are still scarred by fragile, slide-prone hillsides.
“The recovery process is still a mystery — even with three years, understanding the long-term effects is still relatively new,” said Craig Nelson, district manager of the Okanogan Conservation District.
Although the conservation district worked with state and federal agencies shortly after the fire on a detailed landscape assessment called the Burned Area Emergency Response report, it’s still difficult to know when the long-term effects of the fire — particularly the increased risk of erosion and mudslides — have abated, said Nelson.
Even before the fire, scientists and fire ecologists didn’t have solid baseline data for the watershed, said Nelson. It’s not uncommon for a flash flood to occur after a thunder cell hits a small drainage, even without fire damage, he said.
The storms that cause flash floods and mudslides tend to be so localized that it’s hard to predict when and where they’ll hit, said Nelson. And when they do occur, they’re often in remote, inaccessible areas with no one around to take measurements.
Localized impacts may persist for a long time. A mudslide that closed Highway 153 near Black Canyon this spring was most likely a result of a 2012 fire, not the Carlton Complex, said Nelson.
“The science of this is imperfect because it hasn’t been studied heavily,” he said. “You can’t study every drainage that’s burned, especially in a large fire. It would be a fabulous opportunity for a graduate student.”
Focus on worst impacts
Despite the difficulty of predicting impacts over a vast area, there are regions that burned so severely — Benson Creek, Finley Canyon, Fraser Creek and Black Canyon — that they are of higher concern, said Nelson.
The conservation district has focused its rehabilitation in those areas. The district spent about $2 million on rehab projects between last May and this June 30, when the money appropriated by the state Legislature expired. “It was a wild 13 months,” said Nelson.
Through cost-share arrangements with property owners, the district helped replace 20 miles of livestock fencing, swapped out a bridge for a culvert, and repaired an irrigation dam. The district also treated slash and reseeded about 170 acres burned in both the 2014 and 2015 fires. And it hired a contractor to remove burned hazard trees on six county roads.
The Legislature allocated the money based on the number of affected acres. Okanogan was the only county to spend its full appropriation, and could have spent more if projects could have been completed in time, said Nelson. “We were, of course, off the charts for acreage,” he said.
Another $1 million was used for Firewise education and treatments. Several neighborhoods in the valley (including Pine Forest, Wilson Ranch, Buttermilk and The Woodlands) have worked to become designated Firewise communities, conducting logging, thinning and fuels reduction activities to make their neighborhood safer from wildfire.
To improve coordination among agencies responding to major emergencies, an updated Methow Valley Emergency Management Plan was completed this spring, with the cooperation of local responding organizations. The plan is part of Okanogan County’s larger emergency plan, Ing-Moody said.
The valley’s long-term recovery organization worked with the local radio station, KTRT, and the TwispWorks Foundation to purchase a back-up generator for the radio station, which is located at TwispWorks. A back-up transmitter is also in place so if the transmitter on McClure Mountain goes down, the station can still broadcast information the community needs.
The Methow Valley News also purchased a generator to be able to continue publishing and maintaining its online presence during power outages.
While progress has been made to improve communications capabilities, Ing-Moody said there are still concerns that can’t be adequately addressed at a local level. “There are still portions of our county and communities whose safety and economy are compromised due to spotty and unreliable communications capability, whether it be radio, fiber or both,” she said.
In addition to highlighting the need for better communications technology, the Carlton Complex Fire revealed jurisdictional conflicts among agencies responding to fires on federal, state and private properties. That is among the issues that MVLTR has worked to address.
“We are figuring out how to work with public land entities to blur the lines between public and private land when it comes to thinking about fire preparedness, and learning to coordinate so those artificial boundaries don’t get in the way of preparedness or responding to a fire,” said Paulsen.
Preparedness and resilience
A key lesson learned during the Carlton Complex Fire is that during a major disaster, first responders will be overwhelmed by demands, and it is up to individuals to take care of their own needs and assist their neighbors.
Methow Ready was formed by MVLTR to prepare community members for emergencies, including training neighborhood leaders who can organize their neighbors and develop a disaster plan. Preparations include creating maps of neighborhoods to identify skills and equipment helpful in a disaster, and identifying neighbors who may need extra help.
“You should always be the one helping, not being helped,” said Goodall.
Sign up for emergency alerts
People can get automated notifications of fires, mudslides and evacuations by phone, cell phone, text message or email by signing up for Okanogan County’s emergency-alert system.
People can get notifications for up to five locations. For example, someone might request alerts for a home address, work, and addresses of parents, children or friends.
People need to think of the system as per-person, not by household, said Okanogan County Emergency Manager Maurice Goodall. Everyone with his or her own phone should register.
When people sign up for alerts, they prioritize up to 10 methods of notification, such as home phone, cell phone, text and email.
The system allows people to select the types of alerts they want to receive (including fire alerts, power outages and traffic), and to provide time frames when they don’t want to be disturbed with less-urgent warnings such as weather.
Warnings about genuine emergencies — such as to evacuate immediately — will come through regardless of the time of day.
Even if you’ve already registered, you should sign in to make sure the information is accurate. There are ways to retrieve a user name or password if you’ve have forgotten them.
The link to sign up for the free emergency alerts is at okanogandem.org. Anyone with questions should call Goodall at (509) 422-7207.
Methow Ready will hold neighborhood leader trainings this fall, likely in September, said director Hayley Riach. For more information about Methow Ready, go to www.methowready.org.