Firewise practices likely limited structure damage in blaze
By Marcy Stamper
A quick response from multiple firefighting agencies; luck with weather and wind; and homes protected by green, defensible space helped fire crews contain a blaze that started near Carlton on Saturday (July 15) to less than 1,200 acres.
The first significant fire of the season started just after noon near Carlton and Texas Creek and spread quickly in dry grass, heavy brush and light timber, heading north and east along Highway 153 to Benson Creek.
Dubbed the Canyon Creek Fire, the blaze had burned 1,192 acres as of Tuesday (July 18), almost all on Saturday. The 20-acre growth on Sunday was primarily from firefighters’ burning out areas, according to a public information officer for the fire.
The Canyon Creek Fire was considered 75-percent contained as of Tuesday morning, and fire managers anticipated 95-percent containment by the end of the day.
Crews from Okanogan County Fire District 6, the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the U.S. Forest Service all responded during initial attack. There were two helicopters dropping water on the blaze within half an hour, said Ron Wonch, a DNR forester who helped with initial attack, at a public meeting about the fire on Monday night (July 17).
Deep winter snows and a wet spring, coupled with no significant fires last summer, created a big build-up of fine fuels and grasses, which dry out quickly to become highly flammable, said Wonch.
“It went from something really small to big — really fast,” Cody Acord, interim chief of Fire District 6, told the few dozen people who attended the meeting.
All agencies communicated from the start. By 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, once the fire became too much for local crews to handle, the local fire district had asked for a state team, said Acord. “We were all tapped out — we had all the help we could get from mutual aid” from other fire districts in Okanogan County, he said.
They ordered helicopters within the first five minutes and, with two stationed in Omak, the bucket-carrying aircraft arrived quickly, said Wonch. Helicopters have been stationed there for years but, in recent years, the choppers have been in Omak earlier in the season, he said.
The fire was being managed by the Southeast Washington Interagency Incident Management Team, a Type 3 team, which is used for moderate-complexity fires like the Canyon Creek, said incident commander Kimiko Nalle. The team arrived at about 10 p.m. on Saturday and “hit the ground running,” said Nalle.
The fire burned one abandoned house and an outbuilding, according to a public information officer. The house on Highway 153 was abandoned after it was rendered uninhabitable by a mudslide about one month after the Carlton Complex Fire in 2014.
“When a fire is moving that fast and you do Firewise stuff, it really helps,” said Acord. “That’s the reason we didn’t lose anything — there was good defensible space,” said Wonch.
About 100 homes were threatened by the blaze, said Nalle. There have been more than 200 firefighters deployed on the fire.
At around 5 p.m. Saturday, the county issued a Level 3 evacuation order (leave immediately) to people from Carlton and Texas Creek to Benson Creek, and a Level 2 order (be ready to leave) between Benson Creek and Lower Beaver Creek, about 5 miles south of Twisp. The Red Cross set up shelters in Twisp and Brewster for evacuees.
The evacuation levels for all areas were reduced to Level 1 (be alert) on Tuesday.
The fire was staffed 24 hours a day from Saturday though Tuesday morning, when staffing was switched to a day shift, according to the public information officer. As of Tuesday afternoon, they were starting to demobilize forces, but three hand crews, a strike team, five engines, and a water tender — more than 100 people — will remain in the area, she said.
Firefighters are confident they can keep the fire within its original perimeter, said Nalle. As of Monday night, the firefighters had hand and bulldozer lines around the entire perimeter, but were still enlarging the zone on the north end of the fire near Taylor Road, about 2 miles north of Carlton. The wider buffer will provide confidence that no sparks will travel beyond the already burned area and start new fires, said Nalle.
In addition to putting out hot spots inside the fire perimeter, crews have focused on burned trees along Highway 153 that could pose a hazard to motorists and utility crews, said Nalle. Crews with the Okanogan County Public Utility District (PUD) shut power Saturday afternoon after several power poles burned. Power has been restored, but the PUD is still working on repairs to the powerline.
The fire closed part of Highway 153 on Saturday and Sunday, primarily to avoid interfering with firefighters. A detour was available on the Twisp-Carlton Road, which itself was briefly affected by the fire, since several spot fires had crossed the Methow River and were burning along that road on Saturday afternoon. Firefighters extinguished those blazes quickly, according to the public information officer.
After criticisms of chaotic and confusing communication during larger fires in 2014 and 2015, many people said communications between agencies seemed more effective and clearer.
At the meeting, Okanogan County Commissioner Andy Hover praised the coordination between all the agencies in 95-degree heat with 18- to 22-mile-per-hour winds. “Communication was excellent between DNR, the Forest Service and Fire District 6 on initial attack,” Hover said.
In an interview after the meeting, Wonch said agencies are following the same protocol they’ve used for the past 10 or 15 years, with one channel reserved for command operations and one for tactical operations.
Overall, the approach to communications hasn’t changed, but they have had a lot of practice lately, said Acord. “The more you do it, the more you get comfortable with it,” he said. Greater emphasis on planning and building relationships at interagency meetings before the fire season begins has been helpful, he said.
Firefighters were also helped by the fact that most fire crews in Washington were still available, since there are few serious fires in the state now, said Wonch.
Fire crews battling the blaze in Carlton were worried about a predicted wind shift to the south, which would have been a problem, said Wonch. But the wind shifted later than expected, giving them more time to prepare. It actually blew back onto areas already burned. “It saved us by not coming right on time,” he said.
Crews were also aided by obtaining a spot forecast for Carlton right away. Getting precise forecasts was another recommendation to come out of reviews following recent fire seasons.
Carol Mitchell, who lives on Vintin Road, and her husband evacuated on Saturday afternoon as soon as a neighbor pounded on their door. “Where we are, you can see what the firefighters, helicopters and planes did to stop the fire,” said Mitchell. “It’s absolutely amazing.”
Mitchell said the fire burned right up to the edge of deep trenches the firefighters had dug on the steep ravine in front of her house. “We went back home on Sunday and discovered a campground full of firefighters and their trucks, who’ve been there 24/7 since Saturday. They were great,” she said Mitchell.
Most people hailed the cooperation and response of firefighters, but in private interviews after the meeting, some raised questions about firefighters who appeared to look around and then kept going, leaving them to combat the fire on their own or with neighbors.
The fire produced a towering smoke plume on Saturday, but smoky air in the Methow Valley over the past several days was believed to have come from numerous fires burning in British Columbia, according to the lookout at Leecher Mountain.
Fire managers predict smoke will still be visible from within the fire perimeter — particularly in the northeast corner in the Leecher and Canyon Creek drainages — for several days.
About three hours after the Canyon Creek Fire started, a separate blaze was reported on South Fork Gold Creek Road, reportedly caused by an exploding transformer. Firefighters were dispatched and extinguished the fire within an hour. They then rejoined the crews near Texas Creek, said Hover.
The cause of the Canyon Creek Fire is under investigation. Investigators from multiple agencies were on scene on Saturday, said Nalle.
Fire managers remind people to be conscious about their actions in an environment at high risk of wildfire. Be sure tow chains aren’t dragging and don’t drive or park on dry grass or vegetation, said Nalle. Keep vegetation near houses and buildings green and trimmed short, and make sure firewood and flammable materials are at least 30 feet away from homes.