Weather, rugged terrain challenge firefighters
As wind, extreme heat and drought continue 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 Virginian 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.
Cedar Creek Fire
As of Tuesday morning (July 27), the Cedar Creek fire had grown to 33,462 acres and was 13% contained, up from an estimated 24,647 acres on Monday.
The fire has continued to burn southeast and is at the base of Gobblers Knob, contained by U.S. Forest Service Road 500, Great Basin Incident Command Team 1 reported Tuesday morning. The fire is reportedly pushing toward Chickadee Trailhead. The fire roughly stretches from milepost 145 of Highway 20 west of Mazama down the contour of the highway and the Methow River to just northwest of Patterson Lake.
“Engine strike teams, state, and local resources continue to provide structure protection to homes throughout the fire area,” Tuesday’s morning report states. “The current strategy is to construct containment lines in areas with a high probability of success. The objective is to keep the fire above the valley and away from values at risk.”
Highway 20 is still closed from milepost 185 to milepost 165 due to fire activity. There is no estimate available on when the highway will be reopened.
Great Basin Team 1, a type 1 team, took over management of the Cedar Creek Fire Tuesday morning. The fire has been managed so far by Northwest Incident Management Team 8, a type 2 team.
The most recent level 3 evacuation notification, as of Tuesday, was issued late Sunday night (July 25) for the Pine Forest area after the Cedar Creek fire continued to burn southeast, and reach populated areas south of Sun Mountain Lodge.
“We started firing operations yesterday because … the fire had pretty much forced our hand,” said Mark Rapp, of operations for the Cedar Creek Fire under Team 8, on Monday morning.
The burnout operation was used to keep the main fire out of the Sun Mountain area Sunday, and was successful, Rapp said.
“Things went really well,” he said. “We’re in fairly light fuels there.”
However, by about 5 p.m. Sunday, the winds picked up.
“We had a bunch of squirrelly winds,” Rapp said. “We got some spots outside the line.”
Four type 1 helicopters worked until dark Sunday to control the spot fires. Some fire got into residential areas that were evacuated in the Wolf Creek area.
Okanogan County Emergency Management Director Maurice Goodall said Monday that his office believes two outbuildings were lost Sunday night in the Cedar Creek Fire, but that it has been difficult to determine what they were used for because only the foundations survived. A vehicle also burned near W.C. Fields Road off Wolf Creek.
Goodall reported Sun Mountain Lodge has its own reservoir and is “very well protected.” Dozer lines have been placed around that area, fire crews reported.
While the Cedar Creek Fire started on Forest Service land, its proximity to increasingly populated areas has some residents to the southeast of the fire concerned about its path. Ranzau mentioned the possibility of evacuations in the town of Winthrop at the July 21 meeting, and residents at that meeting asked firefighters about the possibility of the Cedar Creek Fire burning all the way down to the Twisp River drainage.
At that point, the fire was just beginning to burn past Lucky Jim Bluff to Virginian Ridge.
“We have large-picture strategies to try and predict based on predictive fire behavior, time of year. There’s some modeling that is out there that can help us with that to see how far it can go,” Rapp said in response. “It has limited capabilities because it’s taking historical information and plugging it into a modeling program that gives us some idea of how long it might take a fire to get somewhere under certain conditions, based on historical information.”
Early modeling on the Cedar Creek Fire didn’t show it growing past Sandy Butte, he said, which obviously turned out to be incorrect.
“All models are good, some are useful,” he said. “We’re trying to predict where Cedar Creek is going to go and we’re trying to prepare for when it does get there.”
At the time, Rapp said they weren’t sure how close the fire would get to the Twisp River drainage at that point, but were looking at contingency plans to keep the fire in the hills and ridges and out of population centers.
“We’re looking for what we call the best ridge, the best location [to hold the fire],” Rapp said. “We don’t want it down in Twisp River, that’s not our goal,” he said. “We’re trying to hold it somewhere else that’s closer in, keep it in the high country, keep it out of the valley bottoms.”
Cub Creek Fire
As of Tuesday morning, the Cub Creek Fire had grown to 51,168 acres with 11% containment, and the fire was mostly staying within existing lines. That footprint is up from the previous day’s estimate of 44,100 acres.
That day, crews were planning on doing strategic burns in the area of Sweet Grass Butte and Cub Pass.
They also plan to fly in fire crews by helicopter to protect the historic 20-mile fire lookout, reported Bill Steers, operations section chief for the Cub Creek Fire, managed by California Interagency Incident Management Team 1.
The fire continues to burn north, away from populated areas and into the National Forest. On Monday, Steers said the area where the fire started, close to West Chewuch Road and Cub Creek, is well under control.
“Very little heat in there throughout the last couple shifts,” he said.
Crews on Monday were planning to continue to work the western flank of the fire, reinforcing fire lines through Sweet Grass Butte into the McLeod Fire scar, which is a high priority, in advance of Tuesday’s burning operations.
Over the weekend, a Washington State National Guard platoon arrived to help with security and road closures at the Cub Creek Fire.
While the Cub Creek Fire started in a fairly densely populated area, it quickly spread to National Forest and wilderness area.
No structures have burned at Cub Creek since the first day of the fire, June 16. Goodall gave the Methow Valley News updated numbers for lost property, including one house undergoing remodels; one house that appeared to be vacant on a property where another home survived; a yurt; and a travel trailer. The structures were all lost in the area of Spook Haven Road.
At the July 21 meeting in Winthrop, Chad Schmidt of Team 8 explained the fire’s path and behavior.
“It’s going to go as long as it has available fuels and available conditions,” he said. Firefighters can do some work to remove fuels — such as trees or by constructing fire lines — but were hampered by difficult terrain. Fire crews have little control over the conditions, he said, driven by drought and hot weather.
“I think this is going to go until we get help on the available conditions, so that’s rain and that’s snow,” he said. “Amazing terrain in here — from a firefighter perspective, very challenging.”
The Delancy Fire is still active, but hasn’t been growing at the rate of the two larger fires in the Methow.
As of Tuesday morning, the Delancy Fire was at about 223 acres, and is being monitored by aircraft.
“The fire is expected to continue to creep and smolder in steep, rocky, sparsely vegetated terrain,” Tuesday morning’s briefing reported. “Fire managers are evaluating values and risks. Containment opportunities are being actively scouted on the east side up Lost River Road.
Great Basin Team 1 and California Team 1 will hold a joint public meeting on Wednesday (July 28) in the Twisp Town Park, 325 N. Lincoln St., at 6 p.m. to discuss the status of the Cedar Creek, Delancy and Cub Creek fires.
•Evacuation Information: www.okanogancounty.org/government/emergency_management/index.php.
•Cub Creek Fire updates and graphics: www.facebook.com/CubCreek2Fire202.
• Cedar Creek Fire updates and graphics: www.facebook.com/MazamaFires2021.
What’s that word?
Confused about terminology you’ve heard in a fire briefing? The U.S. Forest Service has a directory of fire language here: