District 6, DNR, USFS crews all respond
Strong afternoon winds spread a fire, reported as having started in a shed, to a field and trees along the Twisp River before destroying the adjacent house the following morning. The fire, almost 5 miles up Twisp River Road, was first reported at about 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday, April 7.
It was a long haul for firefighters from Okanogan County Fire District No. 6, many of whom grabbed just three hours of rest after cleaning the engines at 1 a.m., only to be called back at about 4 a.m. on April 8 when the fire spread to the house, Okanogan County Fire District No. 6 Chief Cody Acord said.
Fifteen to 20 volunteers from all four stations, from Carlton to Mazama, plus all five district employees and at least a dozen engines, responded to the blaze, said Acord, who arrived first at the scene Tuesday afternoon.
Further complicating their work on the warm, windy afternoon was restricted access to the property, which is reached by a private bridge over the Twisp River. Acord assessed the bridge as soon as he arrived and determined that the metal stringers could support a fire truck. But centering the 40,000-pound truck over the stringers on the narrow bridge after making the sharp turn off the road was difficult, and a wheel punched through the wooden bridge deck. The truck was stranded there for about four hours.
Although they could use the truck to pump water, firefighters had to hike across the bridge carrying ladders, saws, and other equipment to reach the fire.
Other hot spots
Firefighters had the fire in the shed knocked down within a couple of hours. Half of the shed was still standing, but considerable work remained to dismantle the remnants to look for hot spots, Acord said. Meanwhile, firefighters had to split up to deal with spot fires burning in cottonwoods and vegetation along the river.
A major challenge for the fire crews was that both the shed and house had sawdust insulation. “That makes it extra difficult to get a fire out. Sawdust can hide fire sometimes — it’s a really tough thing with fire,” Acord said.
Two wildland fire crews from the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and one from the U.S. Forest Service responded around 5:30 p.m. to combat the spot fires that ignited grass, trees, and vegetation along the river. Some firefighters had to wade into the river to reach an island where woody debris on fire, DNR Fire Prevention Forester Guy Gifford said.
When District 6 firefighters left around midnight, they knew they’d be back to check on the house and surrounding area, Acord said. A DNR engine stayed at the scene overnight to keep an eye on the house and to monitor spot fires, but wildland firefighters aren’t certified to fight a structure fire, he said.
The early-morning call reported that the remaining half of the shed was “completely involved” and the fire was starting to spread to the house, Acord said. “When I got there, the winds were just howling again,” he said.
The wind pushed the fire throughout the old house and into the second story. Firefighters spent about three hours trying to get through the windows, but there was no safe access, Acord said.
The wildland fires stayed put overnight and, with electric power back on in the morning, firefighters were able to set up irrigation to wet down the area, Acord said.
Upwind of the structure fire, there was another fire in trees at the base of a hillside, where an individual had a permit to burn piles, Acord said. But when that person left the piles to help fight the structure fire, the piles got whipped up by the wind and also got out of control, he said.
On Tuesday night, once the shed fire had been knocked down and wildland firefighters were on hand to address the burning trees along the river, District 6 crews turned their attention to the truck stuck on the bridge.
Fire trucks carry inflatable airbags for lifting things, and had one strong enough to support the engine. So, while firefighters gradually inflated the bag, others stacked blocks of wood to shore up the truck frame. When the truck was finally elevated enough to free the wheel, firefighters slid long planks of wood under the wheel above the gaping hole in the bridge. It was almost dark by the time they carefully repositioned the engine over the stringers and were able to back it up, Acord said.
The property owner, who wasn’t there at the time of the blaze, told Acord afterward that an engineer had rated the bridge for a 60,000-pound load, Acord said.
EMTs from Aero Methow Rescue Service treated a family member of the property owners for burns and transported him to Three Rivers Hospital, according to Director of Services Cindy Button. The injuries were not life-threatening, she said.
District 6 has suspended its weekly trainings during the governors’ coronavirus stay-at-home order, but if the restrictions continue much longer, the district may hold video trainings, Acord said. When fighting a structure fire, firefighters have their own masks and breathe their own air, and they kept their distance during breaks, he said.
The fire was still in patrol status on Friday (April 10) as DNR crews monitored smoke and watched for new ignitions, Gifford said.
The fire is under investigation by DNR. DNR is handling the incident as two fires, called the Poorman Creek Fire (1.5 acres), and the Poorman Creek Fire No. 2 (0.3 acres).