By Marcy Stamper
Almost 400 people crowded the Winthrop Barn on Wednesday (Sept. 6) to learn what firefighters are doing to combat the Diamond Creek Fire. The following includes information from fire officials and the Okanogan County emergency manager at that meeting, and about suppression activities and fire status on Thursday (Sept. 7).
Q. Why did fire managers declare a Level 1 evacuation for Mazama, Lost River and the Rendezvous?
It was a combination of factors: Extremely dry conditions, the fact that the fire made 5-mile runs in the north and south in a single afternoon (Sunday, Sept. 2), and the fact that Diamond Creek can’t get all the firefighting resources it needs because there are so many serious fires across the country. There are 25,000 firefighters already committed nationwide.
Q. What does a Level 1 evacuation mean? What should people do?
Level 1 means people should be aware there is a fire in the vicinity. They should be sure they have a plan and be prepared to activate it. The plan should include gathering important documents, medications and other necessities, and knowing about people who need extra help.
They should also know when they will put their plan into action – it’s better to leave earlier than later, leaving roads clear for firefighters, said Okanogan County Emergency Manager Maurice Goodall.
Q. What are firefighters doing now?
Firefighters are creating a fire line from the Yellowjacket Sno-Park in Lost River, heading north to Setting Sun and McLeod mountains. The incident commander believes that can be accomplished in two to three days. In many areas, the firefighters are digging the line by hand in steep terrain, but they also have bulldozers available.
Fire crews are doing water-bucket drops from helicopters when conditions permit. Thursday (Sept. 7) was the first day since Sunday (Sept. 2) when the smoke had cleared enough to allow aircraft to fly. They were also able to do infrared flights, which map areas of heat, to get a more accurate picture of the fire. The Thursday-night flight showed that suppression work near Pat Creek had been effective.
Q. What are the biggest concerns right now?
Firefighters are concentrating on Pat Creek and the head of the Monument Creek drainage on the southern flank of the fire.
The weather forecast includes cooler and moister air on Friday (Sept. 8), with a slight chance of showers and a possibility of thunderstorms in the afternoon and evening. Smoky conditions should begin to dissipate with a forecast change to air flow from the south.
Fire managers remain concerned about winds from the north/northwest on Saturday, which could push the fire closer to developed areas in Lost River and Mazama. They are creating anchor points for a fire line and assessing structures in Mazama and Lost River to be prepared for that possibility.
Q. Where is the fire in relation to the Methow Valley? How big is it?
The fire is about 11 miles from the Lost River airport. There was little progression toward the south on Thursday (Sept. 7). On Friday, the fire was 104,000 acres, about 14,000 of that in Canada.
Q. How did the fire get to this point? What has been accomplished in suppressing it?
The fire started on July 23. Firefighters have done helicopter water drops and have continued fairly aggressive actions, building fire lines on the perimeter and creating barriers beyond it. They did burnout operations on the eastern flank near Eightmile and Billy Goat.
With no measurable rain since June 10, already dry forests have become exceptionally dry, accelerating the fire growth and spread. New fires have been started 1/4- to 1/2-mile from the main Diamond Creek Fire by spotting of sparks and embers carried by the wind.
Q. How many people are fighting the fire?
As of Friday (Sept. 8), there were 59 personnel assigned to the fire. Firefighters got one more engine on Thursday, plus a bulldozer and professional fallers, and are getting three more engines on Saturday (Sept. 9), adding about 20 people overall. They also have an initial-attack and engine crew on loan from the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest until they’re needed elsewhere.
The incident commander has been requesting more resources every day, but has to compete with other fires for resources. There are 48 large, uncontained fires in the West.
Q. What are the decision points for raising the evacuation levels?
Level 1: past Butte Pass (current status)
Level 2: an east-west line through the middle of the Monument Creek drainage
Level 3: confluence of Monument Creek and Lost River
The three points are about 5 miles apart and the confluence with Lost River is 7 miles from the nearest structures.
Q. What are the other flanks of the fire doing?
The east side, near Eightmile and Billy Goat, where firefighters constructed fire lines and conducted a burnout last month, shows little fire activity. The northern flank, where the fire burned into Canada, was very active with considerable runs to the north and northwest over the past week, but it has been quieter the past few days.
In the first part of this week, heavy smoke created an inversion that slowed growth of the fire. But surrounding fuels dry more quickly in an inversion.
Q. What’s the prospect for getting more firefighting resources?
Nationwide, the country is at the highest fire-preparedness level and all firefighting resources – people, aircraft, other equipment – are being deployed to the most urgent incidents. There are five serious fires burning in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest alone.
“We’re doing what we can with what we have right now. It may be we won’t get the resources till we’re at a razor’s edge, but I’m confident we will get the resources when needed,” said Erin Uloth, district ranger for the Mt. Baker Ranger District. (Uloth has been filling in for Methow Valley District Ranger Mike Liu, who is out of the country.)
There are still at least several weeks left in this fire season.
Incident command teams are also being dispatched to assist with the aftermath of catastrophic flooding in Texas.
Q. Can they use retardant?
Incident commanders have approval to use retardant, even in the wilderness, and will do so “if that’s the right tool at the right time” so they have more time to do work on the ground, said Incident Commander Rob Kephart.
On Thursday (Sept. 7), a fixed-wing plane flew over the fire to do reconnaissance work and assess the opportunity to use air tankers with retardant. Conditions were too smoky on Thursday to safely fly air tankers with retardant in the steep canyons where the fire is active, but they will use them if the air clears and retardant drops are deemed to be a safe and effective strategy.
Q. What do the evacuation levels mean?
Level 1: be alert
Level 2: be ready
Level 3: immediate evacuation
Sometimes a Level 3 evacuation remains in place for a long time because fire managers don’t know what a fire will do and the situation can change in an instant.
Q. What roads and trails are closed?
More than 60 roads and trails in and around the Pasayten Wilderness are closed. All trails east of the Pacific Crest Trail in the vicinity of the fire were closed early this week.
Q. What else should people do?
Sign up for emergency alerts with Okanogan County Emergency Management at (509) 422-7206 or http://okanogandem.org. Updates will be broadcast on KTRT-97.5 FM, by the Methow Valley News, on the Diamond Creek Fire 2017 Facebook page, and at inciweb/nwcg.gov/incident/5409.