Special ‘aluminum foil on steroids’ reflects heat
A historic fire lookout and a recreational backcountry hut have been swathed in reflective foil to protect them from the Cub Creek 2 Fire.
Although it looks like tin foil, the wrap is more like the emergency fire shelters that firefighters carry, Cub Creek 2 Public Information Officer Joe Zwierzchowski said.
The foil reflects heat, reducing the temperature so a wooden building can’t catch fire easily. If a fire overran a structure, the foil could provide some protection, but the building would most likely be damaged, he said.
Generically called aluminized structure wrap, the foil is “a very specific product,” Zwierzchowski said. It has its own adhesive, but can also be affixed by folding it over the edge of a structure, just like you’d crimp foil around a plate of leftovers, he said. “It’s aluminum foil on steroids,” he said.
At the Cub Creek Fire, crews took advantage of clear weather on Wednesday (July 28) to send in Payson Helitack, from northern Colorado, by helicopter to wrap the North Twentymile fire lookout and adjacent ground house, Zwierzchowski said. Otherwise, firefighters have to hike in carrying the 50-pound rolls of foil.
Fire crews also wrapped the Heifer hut, one of the five Rendezvous Huts that are popular with cross-country skiers, mountain bikers and hikers. They’re prepared to wrap the other four huts if needed, but they aren’t currently threatened by the fire, Zwierzchowski said.
As the Cub Creek Fire raged up the Chewuch drainage, Twisp resident Isabelle Spohn, who was stationed at North Twentymile as a fire lookout from 1979 through 1981, began sending out messages on social media, hoping to inspire an effort to wrap the buildings.
Spohn lived and worked 30 feet off the ground in the 100-square-foot lookout tower, which was built in the 1940s. The tower shares the summit with a cupola-topped log ground house from the 1920s. Although more than 200 of these ground houses once dotted the forests of the Northwest, fewer than 10 survive, according to the National Historic Lookout Register. The fire crews wrapped both the tower and the ground house.
Local ranger districts draw up lists of priorities for protection, which they give to fire crews, Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest Public Affairs Officer Victoria Wilkins said. This can include campgrounds, historic sites and lookouts, but there are no set criteria, she said. “We give them as much information as possible about values at risk,” she said.
Homes, communities and major infrastructure are the first priority, but if there’s time and it’s safe, fire crews will do their best to protect recreational and historic resources, Wilkins said.
Ben Nelson, co-owner of the Rendezvous Huts, said he’d been in touch with Methow Valley District Ranger Chris Furr about protecting the huts, which are between Cub Creek and Mazama. Heifer and the Rendezvous hut are the oldest in the system, built in 1985.
Heifer was rented out to guests when the Cub Creek Fire started, Nelson said. The huts are heavily booked throughout the ski season, and summer weekends are also busy.
Used less often
North Twentymile, at an elevation of 7,340 feet, provides views from the Sawtooths and the Pasayten to the Kettle Range to the east.
From July through late September, Spohn worked 10-day shifts at the lookout, with a four-day break. She would survey the area from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. – longer during a lightning storm or emergency – and relay information over the radio about weather and locations of smoke.
In her decade-long career as a fire lookout, Spohn worked at all four lookouts around the Methow Valley. Today, only Goat Peak and Leecher Mountain are staffed.
North Twentymile hasn’t been staffed for years. Bob Pfeifer, a retired wildlife biologist who lived in the Aeneas Valley, made restoring the lookout his personal mission. Pfeifer put up his own money and made the long trek carrying supplies to restore the lookout.
He spent much of the 2015 season on the restoration, but died later that year. His son completed the restoration the following year.