Combined fires surpass 100,000 acres, 1,200 fire personnel
Last week, Okanogan County Emergency Management Director Maurice Goodall announced at a community fire meeting in Twisp that effective the following morning (July 29), a level 1 evacuation advisory would be implemented for a portion of the Twisp River drainage.
“We should all be on a level 1 right now,” Goodall said. “We need to be ready. What we’re asking is really have a solid plan, think about it and act on it early.”
For the past week, residents had been asking about the possibility of the fire, which started west of Mazama, breaking into the Twisp River Road area. At the end of last week, firefighters were attempting to check that movement, and were cautiously optimistic.
“Our concern initially was fire coming down in the Methow Valley … and impacting Winthrop,” said Great Basin Incident commander Evans Kuo. “Now our concern is starting to be fire getting down into Little Bridge Creek and then ultimately moving down into the Twisp River, and if it gets down into the Twisp River I think a lot of you folks know what happened in 2016 or 2017 with the Twisp River Fire, how it had a tendency to come down canyon towards Twisp.”
On Saturday (July 31), fueled by heavy winds, the fire passed control lines at Gobbler’s Knob and headed toward dry grasses in the Twisp River Fire burn scar. Emergency management initiated a level 3 evacuation for much of Twisp River Road, including the Poorman Creek area — which brought the eastern level 3 boundary to within a mile of the Twisp town limit. The Poorman Creek area was later reduced to a level 2 evacuation notice.
Kuo said Monday (Aug. 2) at a community meeting in Twisp that crews and emergency management personnel have to make a number of calculations when considering evacuation levels.
“One of the things you have to think about is how fast is the fire moving? How successful are we going to be on slowing it down or stopping it from getting to that community?” Kuo said. “The last thing we want to do is inconvenience folks and push them out of their houses too soon but on the other hand we don’t want the other consequence of making that call too late.”
As the fire was moving toward the burn scar, thick with foot-tall dry grass, fire teams made the call to start evacuations.
“We had to make that call early,” Kuo said. “We figured we had matters of hours. … We don’t want to lose credibility with you folks … so the next time we call for it we don’t want it to be like we called wolf.”
Availability of escape routes also influences evacuation levels.
“There’s one way in, one way out of that place,” Goodall said, of the Twisp River Road area.
On Aug. 1, evacuation orders were eliminated from Mazama at Lost River to Edelweiss and down to Highway 20 at milepost 185. Orders were reduced to level 2 from Mazama to Wolf Creek as well. Goodall said he’s working closely with fire crews to determine when to lift evacuation orders in areas not immediately threatened.
Highway 20 is still closed at milepost 185 (7 miles west of Winthrop) to milepost 165 to all traffic due to fire activity.
There are a number of factors to consider before reopening Highway 20, Kuo said Monday night at a community meeting in Winthrop, though the state Washington State Department of Transportation will have the ultimate say.
“We’re using the highway as the actual control line,” he said. “We have a lot of engines and crews working that area and to have vehicle traffic on two lanes going by all the time would not be safe.”
Fire crews also need to remove debris and would like evacuations in the area of Highway 20 to be downgraded before the road reopens.
Cedar Creek Fire
On Tuesday (Aug. 3), the Cedar Creek Fire had grown to an estimated 50,406 acres and was 23% contained.
Kuo spoke to area residents at Wednesday night’s (July 28) community meeting in Twisp on his group’s second shift on the fire after taking over for Northwest Incident Management Team 8.
Kuo reported that the fire’s boundaries along Highway 20 and Methow River were looking to be “in pretty good shape” by the weekend if everything goes according to plan, allowing the group to move resources to the more active southeast portion of the fire.
The previous night, the fire continued to move across Wolf Creek toward Thompson Ridge. Kuo said his team was assessing the likelihood of the fire progressing to Little Bridge Creek.
Little Bridge Creek would be familiar territory for the Great Basin team, which was in the same area during the 2014 Carlton Complex fires. Kuo was one of the team’s staff in the Methow during that fire (see related story, page B1).
“For a lot of us there’s a little bit of flashback going on as we find some of those dozer lines that were put into place back then,” he said.
On the southeast end of the fire, crews were working late last week to find a “control feature” to keep the fire from continuing its trajectory toward Twisp.
As the week went on, that concern got closer to reality.
Over the weekend, the fire moved around Gobbler’s Knob and crossed a control line at the 4410 Road. Fire burning in that location necessitated evacuations along Twisp River Road on Saturday.
“The strength of the winds and the dryness, it pushed over the line,” said Frankie Romero, of Great Basin Team 1, on Monday.
The Southwest Area team lent personnel and local crews also participated in a strike team to stop the fire.
“The winds kind of subsided and it held up just a little bit from the Pine Forest subdivision. That was a stroke of luck,” Romero said. “We found ourselves pretty fortunate that day.”
On Monday night, crews planned to do a controlled burn near Gobbler’s Knob to help secure the fire line. On Tuesday morning, crews were working to solidify control lines along that southern front of the fire.
“We’re in a little bit of a hustle mode this morning,” Romero said during a Tuesday morning briefing. “Little more sense of urgency today. Our weather report today indicated we’ve got thunderstorms passing through.”
Wind gusts of 30 to 40 miles per hour were predicted for Tuesday afternoon, concerning crews.
Farther up the northeast line of the fire, crews are struggling with a “persistent problem” at the Freestone area.
“There’s an area that has spotted on us several times,” said Romero on Monday. “It’s a cedar grove with several large cedar snags that were on fire, presenting a hazard to the firefighters in there.”
On Tuesday morning, Romero said the fire was continuing to present a challenge and was too dangerous to get firefighters close to.
“The dead tree burns, falls over and it’s coming across a creek to an unburned area and starting fires periodically,” he said. “It’s been a continual headache, challenge.”
On Monday, evening Romero said they were trying a new tactic.
“We’re going to start to … set up a somewhat elaborate sprinkler show in that area,” he said.
On the northwest end, the fire has reached the west end of Silver Star Creek and the top of Vasiliki Ridge. On Monday, a heavy helicopter checked out the area to consider whether fire retardant drops could help control the spread.
Cub Creek Fire
As of Tuesday morning, the Cub Creek Fire was estimated at 58,793 acres with 24% containment.
Over the past week, the fire is estimated to have grown less than 10,000 acres as firefighters shored up control lines along the southern edges of the fire.
Wednesday night (July 28), crews dumped more than 6,000 gallons of water from Deer Creek to Sweet Grass Butte and reported it was successful.
“With a significant warming trend beginning today, the priority for crews is to reduce any heat and fuels, especially near Ramsey Creek and up into Tripod Creek where burning in the lower drainages remains a challenge for crews on the ground; these lower drainages are in steep and inaccessible terrain,” according to California Interagency Incident Management Team 1’s morning report. “With minimal winds throughout the day, the smoke will remain over the valley and linger over the fire.”
Bill Steers, of the California team, said at a July 28 Twisp community fire meeting that the southern portion of the fire on West Chewuch Road and up to 8 Mile Ranch were looking “secure.”
“All this area, we’re just tactically patrolling all that area as we cleaned it up and mopped it up all through there,” he said.
No structures have been lost in the Cub Creek Fire since the fire started July 16.
On Wednesday, fire crews reported the Payson Helitack crew had “wrapped” the Twentymile fire lookout — literally wrapping it in a metallic material to protect it from fire (see related story, page B1).
On Friday (July 30), the management transitioned to another Type 1 incident management team — Southwest Area Incident Management Team 2.
Over the weekend, firefighters contended with rapidly changing weather conditions, from extreme heat to thunderstorms and rain and a flash flood warning. Smoke affected their ability to use air resources.
Firefighters are also dealing with effects of past fires on the Cub Creek blaze.
“This interior area here (in the southeast portion of the fire) is old fire scars. There’s a lot of dead trees in there and safety-wise that puts a lot of the firefighters at risk,” said Nick Castro of Southwest Team 2 in a Monday morning briefing. “There’s no road access, very limited trail access, it’s a long way in. If any sort of medical scenario happened we wouldn’t be able to support it with aircraft just due to all the standing trees.”
At a glance
Cedar Creek Fire
Acres burned: 50,406
Total personnel: 822
Cub Creek Fire
Acres burned: 58,793
Structures burned: 3
Total personnel: 673
Numbers reflect conditions Tuesday morning.
• 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: https://www.fs.fed.us/nwacfire/home/terminology.html.