Several agencies cooperate in battling 175-acre blaze
Fast action by nearly 100 firefighters, aerial dumps of water and retardant, and moderate winds allowed fire crews to control a fast-moving grass fire on Rendezvous Road within seven hours of its ignition on Wednesday (July 31). The fire grew to 175 acres before it was declared 90% contained the next day.
The fire was first reported at about 2:41 p.m. as a grass fire “about the size of a football field” some 4 miles up Rendezvous Road, northwest of Winthrop. Photos taken that afternoon show the fire advancing quickly up a steep hill on the east side of the road.
“The initial call gave 3-5 acres but the wind and terrain spread the fire rapidly uphill and to the north, threatening homes in the Cub Creek area,” said Okanogan County Fire District 6 in a Facebook post about the blaze. Fire crews from Fire District 6, the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the U.S. Forest Service all responded to the fire.
The fire started about 50 feet from a house, said District 6 Fire Chief Cody Acord. Three other houses, the closest within 500 feet, were also threatened.
Joanna Bastian, a Methow Valley news columnist who is also the administrative officer for the Bear Fight Institute at the upper end of Rendezvous Road, said it appeared the fire had started right next to a garden fence.
County firefighters from all four stations, from Mazama to Carlton, worked to extinguish the fire near the origin point and to protect houses ahead of the fire, Acord said. No homes or structures were lost.
Okanogan Emergency Management issued a Level 1 advisory at 3:15 p.m. on Wednesday, telling people to “be aware of their surroundings and take action if needed.” Firefighters closed Rendezvous Road and West Chewuch Road in the afternoon and early evening.
The fire was burning mostly in grass and shrub-steppe, but a small area with trees within the perimeter also burned, said Matt Ellis, fire management officer for the Methow Valley Ranger District.
“It was a good, coordinated effort between three agencies. We got the resources ordered right away and took immediate action,” said Acord. The fire would have been harder to control if winds had been stronger, as they were the day before. Gusty winds were also in the forecast for later in the week, he said.
The Forest Service sent two wildland engines with four firefighters each, plus a 15-person hand crew, Ellis said. DNR supplied a 20-person hand crew and 11 engines. A bulldozer was on scene to build fire lines.
District 6 firefighters left at about 9:30 p.m. on Wednesday. Six DNR engines stayed overnight to lay hose, monitor the fire, and map the perimeter, said Joe Smillie, a public information officer for DNR.
On Thursday, DNR and Forest Service fire crews — six engines in all, plus two hand crews — continued to check the fire and mop up hot spots. By the end of the day Thursday, the fire was 90% contained, said Smillie.
The fire was fought from above by heavy air tankers that dropped retardant, by “fire boss” planes that dumped water, and by two helicopters with water buckets. An air-attack plane coordinated the aerial response. Fire managers were able to borrow some aircraft from the Devore Creek Fire near Stehekin.
Planes swoop in
When the fire bosses swooped low over Pearrygin Lake to suck up water, “we were scrambling to get jet-skiers off the lake — and saw a sailboat headed for the reeds,” said Rick Lewis, head ranger at the park. The planes easily traveled half the length of the lake to scoop water, he said.
“We sit above Pearrygin Lake, across from the Rendezvous. It was amazing to watch the skill those pilots and crews displayed,” said area resident Richard Pelman by email. “The water drops and retardant drops were precise. We watched the prop plane refill from the lake, climb out (avoiding the power lines cutting across our back 20, as they head over Studhorse to town), make a tight turn and head back to the fire.”
Amelia Eberline, who was at home on West Chewuch Road near Cub Creek, was in a perfect — and scary place — to see the rapid spread of the fire. Alerted by her German Shepherd, she and her boyfriend looked out the window to find a huge plume of red smoke coming over the mountain. They didn’t have a car, so they threw some essentials into backpacks, grabbed computers and medications, and ran down the driveway with the dog in tow. It was 3:17 p.m. when they left — just 36 minutes after the fire was first reported to county dispatch.
“It was terrifying,” said Eberline, a 2017 Liberty Bell graduate who, despite being evacuated several times, said this was the most unnerving. “I’ve learned that you don’t wait till someone comes to evacuate you,” she said.
They quickly got a ride and climbed in with two adults, three kids and a dog. “They were so sweet — they didn’t have any seats. It was so nice and reassuring,” Eberline said.
Bastian smelled smoke in the air when she took her dogs outside at about 2:30 p.m., but assumed it was from the Devore Creek Fire. When she left 15 minutes later, Bastian saw big flames licking the top of the hill as she drove down Rendezvous Road. An Okanogan County Sheriff’s deputy was going door-to alert people about the fire, she said.
Because Bastian had been the only person at Bear Fight, she headed the 2 miles back up the road to batten down the hatches, shut the windows, and make sure Rocky the office cat was safe. By the time she left again around 3:30 p.m., helicopters were scooping water from a nearby pond and planes were buzzing overhead.
“It looked very, very organized and coordinated,” she said. “I was just very impressed with the speed of the response. They already had the road closed off and were going around to houses.”
“Kudos to the person who called it in, because it could have been a lot worse,” said Bastian.
Because the fire was on private property under DNR protection, DNR was responsible for fire management.
The cause of the fire is under investigation. A DNR investigator was on scene the day after the fire, said Smillie.
Devore Creek Fire
The Devore Creek Fire, 3 miles southwest of Stehekin, grew slowly over the past week. It was estimated at 193 acres on Tuesday (Aug. 6). The fire is burning in heavy timber at about 8,000 feet in a wilderness area. It is expected to continue to back downslope and to creep laterally, but without significant spread, according to the InciWeb incident information system.
The Devore Creek Fire was ignited by lightning on July 23, but it wasn’t discovered for several days. Smoke from the fire has occasionally been visible in the Methow Valley.
There were 83 people and three helicopters assigned to the fire as of Aug. 6, including 33 overhead personnel.
Fire risk goes up
The National Interagency Fire Center is predicting “above-normal significant large fire potential” along the east slopes of the northern Cascades, the Columbia Basin, and the Palouse in eastern Washington. Normal significant large fire potential is expected in all areas in October and November.
The Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has raised the risk in the higher elevations of the Methow and Chelan fire danger rating area (FDRAs) to “very high/extreme.” The risk remains “high” on the valley floor from Mazama to Pateros; east of the Loup summit; and around Omak, Tonasket and Oroville. In eastern Okanogan County, including the Colville Reservation, the risk is “moderate.”
In the Methow FDRA, all burning on DNR-protected lands, including permit burning, was banned as of Aug. 2.
All campfires on DNR land in Okanogan County — even in DNR campgrounds — were banned at the end of June.
DNR began using the new rating areas this year in eastern Washington so that fire-risk ratings apply to areas with similar fuels, climate and topography.
The Okanogan County commissioners banned all outdoor burning, including the use of charcoal barbecues, throughout the county at the end of June. Gas- and propane-fired barbecues are allowed.
Fires are permitted in metal rings at established U.S. Forest Service campgrounds. Fires are always prohibited in wilderness areas.
Self-contained gas and propane stoves are permitted at Pearrygin Lake and Alta Lake state parks. Charcoal and wood fires are banned.