Community meeting draws large crowd
By Natalie Johnson
As wind and extreme dry weather continues to drive the growth of two Methow Valley fires, the best hope for the return of normal life and clear skies is fall rain, or ideally, an early snow.
“We’re all working toward the goal of not allowing these fires to come into Winthrop,” said Mayor Sally Ranzau at a community fire meeting Wednesday evening (July 21) at Mack Lloyd Park. “Unfortunately, this is a season-ending event for tourism. But we are resilient and a strong community. Hopefully an early-September snow storm will get us back on track.”
A few hours later, Sun Mountain Lodge and the surrounding area was put on a level 3 evacuation as the Cedar Creek Fire began to crest Virginia Ridge. The lodge announced Thursday morning (July 22) that all staff and guests had been evacuated and that the lodge would be closed until further notice.
The Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) has closed all of its lands in eastern Washington for overnight camping due to fire danger. Those areas are now day-use only. No fires, shooting or smoking outside cars is allowed. Motor vehicles are also not allowed more than 10 feet off a road.
“We don’t need more people coming to the Methow to recreate at this time,” said WDFW police officer Troy McCormick.
The Methow Valley Wildlife Area, including the Pearrygin Lake access boat launch, is totally closed. Washington State Parks closed Pearrygin Lake State Park earlier this week.
State agencies have also closed the Rendezvous and Early Winters areas to recreation as well as Big Valley wildlife areas and Patterson Lake access, McCormick said Wednesday.
“We just don’t have the personnel or resources to patrol those areas,” he said.
The Department of Natural Resources temporarily closed all of its lands east of the Cascades as of July 20 due to fire danger.
The U.S. Forest Service’s Methow Valley Ranger District has closed the Early Winters, Klipchuck and Lone Fir recreation areas due to wildfire danger. Both the Cedar Creek and Cub Creek fires have led the Forest Service to close lands affected by the fire to recreation. More information on exact areas that are closed can be found at www.fs.usda.gov/main/okawen/home.
“You can really help by staying outside of those closure areas,” said Methow Valley District Ranger Chris Furr, of the U.S. Forest Service. “We get people in harm’s way and then we have to send people into harm’s way to get those people out. It’s a big area and I know how important getting out and recreating here is for you folks, but we just ask for your respect of those closure areas.”
Highway 20 is closed from milepost 165 to 185 and is expected to stay closed through July, the Washington State Department of Transportation announced this week.
Methow Trails has closed all of its trails until fire conditions change.
“(F)or now all trails from the Chickadee trailhead/Sun Mountain, all trails in the Mazama area, Rendezvous trails, and all trails accessed from the Chewuch River drainage are CLOSED to all users,” Methow Trails posted on social media Wednesday.
Officials at Wednesday’s meeting asked residents to abide by closures as well as evacuation orders to stay safe. None of the evacuations ordered so far had been lifted as of Wednesday.
“What we need from you is vigilance, calm and a belief that these fire crews will do their job and keep Winthrop safe,” Ranzau said. “However, if it does come time for us to have to evacuate, please be ready and go.”
Current evacuation information is available at www.okanogancounty.org/government/emergency_management/index.php.
Several residents at Wednesday night’s meeting asked when they would be allowed to go back to their homes. Fire and emergency management personnel said each evacuated area would have to be evaluated for ongoing risk. Some areas in the Cub Creek Fire evacuation zones have also lost power and are getting replacement power poles, they said.
A few days after the Cedar Creek, Varden and Delancy fires were first reported July 11, Northwest Incident Management Team 8, a type 2 response team, came to the Methow to take over those fires. As the Cedar Creek and Varden fires merged — and are now just called the Cedar Creek Fire — the team had to split off into two groups as a new threat emerged on July 16.
“Northwest Team 8 … showed up on July 13 with three relatively small fires in a really complex piece of country and (we) asked them to help us come up with solutions and within about four days we doubled the complexity of what we were asking them to do with the start of Cub Creek,” said District Ranger Chris Furr. “I think they’ve done a remarkable job of reacting to changing conditions, changing priorities and just everything that the past eight or nine days have thrown at them.”
This Friday, Team 8 was expecting to be relieved by a larger Type 1 Incident Management Team to take over the Cub Creek Fire, while Team 8 plans to continue working on Cedar Creek.
“It spreads us really thin,” said Kevin Stock, incident commander of Team 8, of fighting both the Cedar and Cub creek fires at once.
Adding a type 1 team brings more logistical support and allows each team to focus on just one fire.
“I have a lot of empathy for this community, it feels like home,” said Stock, who is from Bend, Oregon, during the community meeting Wednesday. “I know how much you guys count on the tourism, how much you love being in the outdoors. That’s why you’re here.”
Earlier this week, the state Fire Marshal’s Office authorized state mobilization for the Cedar and Cub creek fires. Three strike teams were sent to the Methow, with each containing five wildland engines and one water tender. Those crews will largely be devoted to protecting structures in the affected areas, Stock and Okanogan County Fire District 6 Chief Cody Acord said.
Wind and unusually dry fuels — mainly plants — are contributing to the fires’ progressions, fire behavior and weather analysts reported Wednesday. “Our goal is we don’t evacuate anyone after the hours of darkness,” said Maurice Goodall, Okanogan Emergency Management director. However, unpredictable fire behavior led to two late-night evacuattions as of Thursday morning, including one a few hours after Wednesday night’s meeting for an area around Sun Mountain Lodge.
Scott McDonald, fire behavior analyst with the Northwest Incident Management Team 8, said the extreme heat wave in late June contributed to the fire season we’re having now.
“Even though the snow pack wasn’t too bad out here, it went away really quick,” he said. “It was here and then it was gone and that kind of started setting our fuels up in a position that put us about four weeks ahead of where we should be.”
The topography of the area is also complicating firefighting efforts, McDonald said, but he told residents Wednesday that the area needs rain to feel real relief.
“Our fuels are dry and without any relief from the weather, they’re going to stay dry, and fire behavior is going to stay fairly active,” he said.
Todd Carter of the National Weather Service’s Spokane office, is working with the incident management teams to evaluate the weather.
“Generally the forecast in the future … we’re going to go through these patterns where we warm up a little bit for a few days and we cool down a little bit. I don’t see any record heat coming. It seems that we’re kind of locked in this pattern,” he said.
While the weather is being fairly predictable, the forecast doesn’t include any precipitation, he said. Average precipitation levels for the Mazama area are about a ½ inch in August, ¾ of an inch in September and 2 or more inches in October, he said Wednesday.
“All of you probably know that we’ve gotten more than ¾ of an inch of rain for the valley in August before. We’ve also had events in September where we’ve got more than ¾ of an inch in a month,” Carter said, adding that we’re in a La Niña year, meaning more precipitation than normal is possible. “What we’re looking for is to identify a pattern that might be conducive to bringing one of those storms to give us a little relief. … I’m not convinced we’re going to stay in the hot and dry forever — I don’t think you should be either.”
More fire news:
‘A long road ahead’
By Don Nelson
After a brief closure, the Mazama Store is open for business, although on a somewhat limited basis and with reduced hours. The outdoor service area is closed, but the store itself is staffed.
“We thought, ‘there are still people here who haven’t evacuated,’” co-owner Missy LeDuc said Thursday. “It’s nice for them to have a close-by option.”
The store offers some baked goods, pastries and coffee along with the usual provisions. Staffing is a challenge, LeDuc said, but the store “is trying to keep people who need the work and want the work.”
The store is in a level 2 evacuation zone, but is within a quarter-mile of a level 3 zone just across the Methow River. It is still accessible by way of Highway 20 and Goat Creek Road, although road signs note that travel is limited to residents and property owners.
LeDuc said she is seeing mostly local residents and few tourists.
The LeDucs (Missy’s husband, Rick, is co-owner) whipped up an impromptu breakfast for whoever showed on Tuesday morning, to use up some of the more-perishable food. “There was no sense in throwing it out,” Missy LeDuc said.
Keeping the store open give people an opportunity to socialize and exchange information, LeDuc said. As for the coming days and weeks, LeDuc said, they’ll play it by ear.
“We’ll do whatever we can whenever we can do it,” she said. “It’s going to be a long road ahead.”
- Methow Arts has canceled a concert scheduled for Aug. 14.
- Confluence Gallery has canceled its annual Home Tour scheduled for Aug. 7.
- The Methow Valley Interpretive Center has canceled an event scheduled for July 25 and 26.