By Marcy Stamper
With a forecast for temperatures in the triple digits and a cold front accompanied by strong winds, fire managers expect Thursday and Friday (Aug. 9 and 10) could be decisive in the spread of the Crescent Mountain Fire, which had grown to 11,250 acres as of Thursday morning.
Fire crews completed work in the War Creek drainage on Wednesday in an effort to keep the fire from advancing to Buttermilk, about 11 miles west of Twisp. They cleared trees and other vegetation and turned over dirt along War Creek Road and the War Creek Trail. That work tied the fire line into natural, rocky barriers higher on the ridge and into an old fire scar, according to Mike Dueitt, incident commander for the Southern Area Red Type 1 team that’s managing the fire. Crews then burned out the area between the fire break and the active part of the fire.
Dueitt was one of several fire and local officials who addressed some 400 people at a community-information meeting on Wednesday night (Aug. 8).
Crews have been focusing on the War Creek drainage because the heavy fuels there present the potential of driving the fire east toward Twisp, and of threatening communications infrastructure on McClure Mountain, said Dueitt. On Thursday, crews were expected to monitor and mop up the War Creek area, he said.
The burnout was completed from War Creek to Buttermilk Road, according to a Thursday-morning briefing by Jon Wallace, operations section chief for the team. Crews will be cleaning up the fire edge between Buttermilk Road and the fire, he said.
Crews have set hoses, plumbing and pumps around structures in the Buttermilk area, since the southern fire edge was just 1.7 miles from the closest structure on Thursday morning. Being able to turn on that water “will make structure defense a lot quicker and a lot more efficient” if the fire moves through that area, said Wallace.
Crews have also completed construction of fire lines and cleaned up along Little Bridge Creek Road, several miles closer to town, where they are also taking advantage of a fire scar. The Little Bridge Creek fire line will be one of the primary lines they use as the fire moves down Twisp River Road, said Wallace.
Crews have also prepped Thompson Ridge Road as a contingency line. Firefighters also planned to prep campgrounds on upper Twisp River Road on Thursday.
The Crescent Mountain Fire burned upslope and merged with the Gilbert Fire on its north and northwest edge on Wednesday, but it is holding well on Abernathy Ridge, said Wallace.
Crews have been monitoring the progress of the blaze in that direction, including the risk that it could advance toward Wolf Creek and Winthrop. The probability of a spread in that direction is lower because of rocky ridges and old fire scars, said Wallace.
While smoke levels have been unhealthy, the heavy smoke has helped firefighters, since the inversion has kept a lid on the blaze and kept temperatures some 20 degrees cooler over the fire, said Dueitt. But the smoky skies have significantly limited the opportunity to use aircraft for water drops, with safe conditions only for an hour or so over the past few days.
The fire sent up a plume of smoke on Wednesday evening near War Creek, where crews were taking advantage of the lift of the fire to pull smoke and heat from their burnout operations into the main blaze to prevent spot fires, said Dueitt.
The excessively hot and dry weather on Thursday and Friday is likely to move the fire into the crowns of trees, with spotting up to 1/2 mile away, said Alison Koons, the fire-behavior analyst trainee for the fire. Fire managers anticipate the Crescent Mountain Fire will move into the Lime Creek drainage in the upper Twisp River over the next several days.
There is also a risk that the weather will contribute to a fire plume, which builds until it collapses and can send fire in any direction, said Dueitt. “We’re trying to do the best we can to protect the town,” he said.
There are more than 400 personnel assigned to the Crescent Mountain fire, including a hotshot crew, about five hand crews, and a lot of heavy logging equipment. Fire managers have ordered more resources, “but so has every other fire in the West,” said Dueitt.
“What we’re doing is our best chance of success. It’s not the best by any means, but we’re doing the best with our resources,” said Dueitt, noting that there is a huge demand for firefighting resources because of the number of extreme blazes burning around the West.
The Crescent Mountain Fire was the 14th-highest priority in Washington and Oregon when the Southern Area team arrived, but had catapulted to second place by Wednesday. The top priority is the Cougar Creek Fire, which has burned 10,800 acres near Entiat and resulted in mandatory evacuations.
The weather in this area has been drier and hotter than normal over the past two months, putting the forest at extreme risk for wildfire. While the forecast for the next two days is likely to contribute to significant fire activity, temperatures over the weekend will be cooler, according to the fire-team meteorologist.
Emergency managers extended the Level 2 (be ready to leave) evacuation order for people on Twisp River Road east to Little Bridge Creek on Thursday morning.
Twisp River Road and all trails in the area are closed west of Buttermilk. Travel on Little Bridge Creek and Thompson Ridge Road is not advised.
Information about the Crescent Mountain Fire on InciWeb at https://inciweb.nwcg.gov. People can watch a video of the Aug. 8 public meeting through the Facebook page for the fire.