Level 2 evacuation declared
By Marcy Stamper and Ann McCreary
Fire managers raised the evacuation alert for the Diamond Creek Fire to Level 2 (be prepared to leave) for Mazama, Lost River and the Rendezvous on Wednesday (Sept. 13).
The heightened alert came a week after the management team issued a Level 1 alert for the same areas. Since then, the Diamond Creek Fire has grown in most directions, including Monument Creek in the south, the area closest to Mazama.
Fire and emergency managers closed Harts Pass Road to the public to minimize interference with fire suppression and to avoid having to oversee a complex evacuation on the steep and narrow road if fire and smoke conditions worsen.
A National Incident Management Organization (NIMO) team arrived Thursday (Sept. 14) to take over management of the fire. NIMO teams are not restricted to the two-week limit that applies to other incident management teams assigned to the fire, and will have the ability to stay through the end of the event if necessary.
Despite a nationwide shortage of firefighters and equipment, the number of people assigned to the fire has tripled since last week.
The following includes information from fire officials and the Okanogan County emergency manager at public meetings on Sept. 6 and 13, and about suppression activities and fire status as of Thursday (Sept. 14).
What do the evacuation levels mean? What should people do?
Level 2 means that people should be ready to evacuate at a moment’s notice. People should be sure they have an evacuation plan and be prepared to activate it. The plan should include gathering and packing important documents, medications and other necessities, making arrangements for pets, and knowing about people who need extra help.
Okanogan County Emergency Manager Maurice Goodall told about 200 people at a meeting in Mazama on Wednesday night that if the fire growth and location prompt fire managers to issue a Level 3 evacuation, emergency managers would attempt to provide notice with enough time for people to gather their important belongings and leave.
Why did fire managers declare the evacuation level?
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 early this month, and a forecast of strong winds from the north for this week.
A significant contributing factor is 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.
However, at Wednesday’s meeting in Mazama, Erin Uloth of the Forest Service said incident managers felt the fire was adequately staffed and equipped. “We’re actually feeling all right with the resources we have,” she said. (Uloth is filling in for Methow Valley District Ranger Mike Liu, who is out of the country.)
What is the current status of the fire?
After a fairly quiet weekend, hotter weather on Monday (Sept. 11) intensified fire activity, causing the fire to send up five columns, one near Monument Creek in the south.
The other columns that flared up on Monday were in the north, where the fire grew further into Canada; near Remmel Creek; and in an unburned interior pocket in the Pasayten Wilderness. Fire behavior was less active on Tuesday.
On Wednesday (Sept. 14), despite strong winds from the north, the fire did not move significantly south in Pat Creek, an area of concern because of the potential for the fire to move into Auburn Creek and the Goat Creek drainage, where fuels and topography are aligned for a run to the south. The fire was being held in Pat Creek by a steady flow of bucket drops from three helicopters to cool the fire. Two more helicopters were scheduled to arrive Thursday (Sept. 14).
The Northern Rockies, where numerous huge fires have been burning, are receiving snow. That helps douse those fires and makes more firefighting equipment available elsewhere, fire managers said.
In the Monument Creek drainage, the fire advanced about 1 to 1.5 miles down the drainage between Tuesday and Wednesday and was running into rocky ground where fuels become sparser.
Fire managers established three lines on a map about 5 miles apart as decision points to review the evacuation levels. The line that could prompt them to trigger a Level 3 evacuation – leave immediately – is about 7 miles from Mazama and Lost River. The fire is currently about 1 mile beyond the Level 2 line and 4 miles from the Level 3 line.
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. A crew spent Wednesday night camped near the head of Gate Creek so they could get an early start on working to complete the primary fire line. In many areas, the firefighters are digging the line by hand in steep terrain. They are also building a wider bulldozer line closer to Mazama and Lost River.
On Thursday (Sept. 14), fire managers planned to assess building potential lines to the west of the Yellowjacket Sno-park to box the fire in on the southwest side.
Even if the fire lines are not needed to fight the Diamond Creek Fire, they may be valuable in the future, said Incident Commander Rob Kephart. “Part of the reason we are doing this work is it will be here for years to come,” he said.
Fire crews have been able to do water-bucket drops from helicopters since air quality and visibility improved last Thursday (Sept. 7), but that was the first day since Sept. 2 that the smoke had cleared enough to allow aircraft to fly.
Last week fire managers were also able to do an infrared flight, which maps areas of heat, to get a more accurate picture of the fire. They haven’t had an infrared plane available since then, but hope to do another infrared flight in the next few days.
Firefighters are also wrapping structures in the Remmel Creek area beyond the far northeastern flank of the fire.
What are the biggest concerns right now?
Firefighters are concentrating on Pat Creek and Monument Creek drainages on the southern flank of the fire.
Fire managers are concerned that the fire could burn into the Goat Creek drainage, which has heavy fuel load, with 50 to 100 tons of dead and down trees per acre. Firefighters wrapped the Goat Peak lookout (and the adjacent outhouse) over the weekend as a preventive measure. The lookout is a historic building and a popular tourist destination. They are focusing water drops in those areas.
The weather forecast is for cooler weather later this week. Fire managers remain concerned about a midweek forecast for winds from the north, 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.
There is a red flag warning for the Methow Valley through Thursday night (Sept. 14) because of gusty winds from the north and low relative humidity, although the weather will be cooler.
There is “potential good news in the long-range forecast,” with rain predic
ted for the low country and potential snow above 6,000 feet on Sunday (Sept. 17).
The winds on Thursday are expected to help carry smoke out of the area.
Where is the fire in relation to the Methow Valley? How big is it?
The fire is about 10 air miles from Mazama. On Thursday, the fire was 119,000 acres, about 24,000 of that in Canada.
How did the fire get to this point? What has been accomplished in suppressing it?
The fire started on July 23. Eight smokejumpers and a 20-person crew were assigned to initial attack, but could not contain the fire. Firefighters have made 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.
The fire is believed to be human caused.
How many people are fighting the fire?
In the past week, the management team has received about 40 more personnel, additional bulldozers, and feller bunchers and a log loader to move big trees. Three additional crews were added to the firefighting force on Thursday (Sept. 14), bringing the number of people assigned to the fire to 154.
The personnel include two engine crews who are assessing structures and fuels near Mazama. Those crews are focused on protecting the community. They also have an initial-attack and engine crew on loan from the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.
The incident commander has been requesting more resources every day, as well as a higher-level management team, but has to compete with other fires for resources. There are 48 large, uncontained fires in the West.
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, has shown little recent fire activity. The northern flank, where the fire burned into Canada, was quite active again on Monday, with considerable runs to the north and northeast.
Last week, heavy smoke created an inversion that slowed growth of the fire, although surrounding fuels dry more quickly in an inversion. Since the inversion lifted, fire managers have been able to use more helicopters to drop water, but higher winds have accelerated fire growth.
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.
Incident command teams have also been dispatched to assist with the aftermath of catastrophic flooding in Texas.
There are still at least several weeks left in this fire season. The Diamond Creek Fire is expected to continue burning until a “season-ending event” such as wetting rain or snow. In this area, there is a 50-percent chance of a season-ending event by Oct. 1, and a 99-percent chance of a season-ending event by Oct. 19, Forest Service officials said.
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 Kephart.
Last 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 that day 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.
“This fire is embedded in steep, narrow canyon country that is impossible for firefighters to back up on the ground, or for planes to safely drop retardant,” said public information officer Terry Anderson.
What are the decision points for raising the evacuation levels?
Level 1: past Butte Pass
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.
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.
What roads and trails are closed?
Harts Pass Road is closed. The Pacific Crest Trail is still open, but hikers can only access it from the Rainy Pass and Canyon Creek trailheads. The Ballard and River Bend campgrounds are also 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 last week.
How will people know if the evacuation level changes? What else should people do?
Changes in the evacuation level will be broadcast by phone, text message and email through the Okanogan County alert system. 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 @diamondcreekfire2017 Facebook page, and at inciweb/nwcg.gov/incident/5409.
There are also signboards at the Mazama Store and Winthrop post office.
People can watch a video of the Sept. 13 meeting on the Diamond Creek Fire Facebook page here.
Fire information is available at 996-4040 from 8 a.m. – 6 p.m.