USFS assessing damage, dangers
Many trails and campgrounds on U.S. Forest Service land in and around the Methow Valley will remain closed to recreation for a while longer while the Forest Service evaluates damage and potential hazards in the wake of the Cedar Creek and Cub Creek fires.
With clear skies and cooler temperatures, many people are eager to get into the back country to hike, camp, ride horses and mountain bikes. But Forest Service lands impacted by the Cedar Creek and Cub Creek fires, which cover more than 125,000 acres, have been closed since mid-July.
The Forest Service issued a revised fire emergency closure order last Friday (Aug. 27) that opens a few areas that have been closed. They include the Klipchuck and Lone Fir campgrounds, and Cutthroat Lake and Driveway Butte trailheads, which had been closed due to the Cedar Creek Fire. In addition, the Lightning Creek and South Fork Beaver Creek trails on the east side of the Cub Creek Fire reopened. Access to Rendezvous Pass from Fawn Creek and Gunn Ranch also reopened.
“We’ve had closures since early on in the fires. This is our first attempt at reducing that footprint,” said Chris Furr, Methow Valley district ranger. “We are going to work to do another round of openings within the next couple of weeks.”
Along the Twisp River, all campgrounds and trails on the north side of the river remain closed, and the road is closed near the Twispavia housing development, about 12 miles up the road. All campgrounds and trails on the Chewuch and 8 Mile drainage are closed, and the roads are closed beyond 8 Mile Ranch on the West Chewuch side and at the forest boundary past the Boulder Creek turnoff on the East Chewuch.
All Sun Mountain trails are closed, including mountain bike trails accessed by the Chickadee Trailhead. Mountain biking trails on Buck Mountain are also closed. Patterson Mountain trail near Sun Mountain is closed, and trails in Mazama west of the Mazama trailhead, including the Community Trail to Freestone Inn, are closed.
The fire closures remain in place, Furr said, because fire is still actively burning in some areas. “There is so much fire on this landscape – we’re at around 125,000 acres – that there’s still going to be hot pockets even when the fire edge is cold,” he said.
The closures also continue because the Forest Service is assessing hazards resulting from the fires and conducting repair work on fire lines and other damage resulting from fire suppression efforts, Furr said. The repairs involve large equipment working and traveling on Forest Service roads, and the closures are intended to protect the public while the repairs are underway, he said.
Assessing the damage
The Forest Service began an assessment of fire impacts with a Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) team about two weeks ago, Furr said. The team evaluates fire damage to natural resources and recreational features, including trails, campgrounds and roads.
The BAER team identifies the risks to humans and natural resources from falling trees, erosion, flooding and other consequences of fires, and recommends emergency steps to repair damage and protect public safety. The team worked first in the Cub Creek Fire area and is now working on the Cedar Creek Fire, Furr said.
Reports on the fires are expected to be completed in about two weeks and will help the Forest Service determine what areas are safe to reopen to the public and what mitigation or repairs are needed, he said.
The recent fire closure order from the Forest Service states that closures are in effect until Dec. 31, unless rescinded sooner. But Furr said he expects more areas in the Methow Valley Ranger District to reopen before that date.
“In some areas like Twisp River, Little Bridge Creek and Chewuch Road, we’re trying to get work done so we don’t have to leave those closed over winter,” he said.
Furr recommended that people call the Methow Valley Ranger District at 996-4000 for current information on closures.
The extent of the fire damage is just beginning to be understood as it becomes possible to enter burned areas. Cedar Creek and Wolf Creek trails are both expected to stay closed over the winter because of the high severity fire in those areas, Furr said. The area above Falls Creek Falls, in the Chewuch River drainage, was also severely burned and will remain closed, he said.
Two campgrounds on 8 Mile Road – Nice and Flat – had “minor” damage from the Cub Creek Fire, and fire impacted some campgrounds along the Chewuch River, he said. An outhouse at the Wolf Creek trailhead burned, and some mountain biking trails in the Buck Mountain trail system are also damaged, he said.
Sun Mountain impacts
Some of the most severe impacts for recreation occurred in the Chickadee trail system at Sun Mountain, Furr said. The Forest Service is working with local organizations including Methow Trails, Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance and Sun Mountain Lodge in the aftermath of the fire. “They will definitely be a part of the larger discussion about moving forward,” Furr said.
James DeSalvo, executive director of Methow Trails, said that preliminary information from the Forest Service indicates that the Cedar Creek Fire burned with high severity in some parts of the trail system at Sun Mountain, but much of the trail system is intact.
DeSalvo said he would get his first look at Sun Mountain trails on National Forest land during a field trip with the BAER team on Tuesday (Aug. 31). The trails are a destination for mountain bikers in summer, and a hub for cross-country skiing on trails groomed by Methow Trails in winter.
“My overall take is that there were some very high intensity areas of fire that came through some very beloved sections of trail,” DeSalvo said Monday, before touring the Sun Mountain trails.
He said initial reports from the Forest Service indicate that trails, or segments of trails that “burned very hot” include Black Bear, Aqualoop, Lower Fox, upper Thompson Ridge, Meadowlark, upper Inside Passage, upper Pete’s Dragon, Climb It Change and the Ridge Trail.
Methow Trails staff recently toured trails on private property that is part of the Sun Mountain Lodge resort, including Beaver Pond and Sunnyside trails. Those trails were not heavily damaged and Methow Trails crews have done some preliminary work to clear debris on those trails, DeSalvo said. A building known as “the homestead” near those trails did not burn, and no bridges in the trail system were damaged, DeSalvo said.
“Much of Sun Mountain’s winter trail infrastructure was not touched by fire. I want to see exactly what happened. We’re anxious to get in there and take a look at what we can do,” DeSalvo said.
“Not in the recent past have we had fire burn this extensively over our trail network. This is a new thing for us and the Forest Service,” he said.
The fire damage at Sun Mountain may have a greater impact on the mountain biking community, DeSalvo said. It appears that several trails that were developed or improved in recent years by the Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance at the Chickadee Trailhead on Sun Mountain were burned.
DeSalvo said he expects trails groomed by Methow Trails in the Mazama, Winthrop and Rendezvous areas will be open this winter. “The majority of our trail system has not been burned or damaged,” he said.
For the trails that are damaged, help with repairs will be needed and appreciated, DeSalvo said. People are already expressing interest in helping, he said.
“There will be a time when we need you. Right now we need to try to be patient as the Forest Service makes its assessment,” DeSalvo said. “We’ll let people know exactly how they can pitch in. It’s going to be a long recovery, so we’ll need patience in the short term and endurance in the long term.”
On the Twisp River, roads and trails on the south side of the river, including Horse Camp and Williams and Eagle/Oval trailheads, and Black Pine Lake are open, Furr said. The South Creek Trail is also accessible from the south side of the Twisp River, and provides access to the Louis Lake trail.
Methow Trails is posting updates about trail openings and closings on its website, methowtrails.org, under the “Plan Your Trip” link. Open trails listed on the site include Riser Lake and Lewis Butte trails near Winthrop and Big Valley trail north of Winthrop.
Also open is the Methow Community Trail between Browns Farm and Mazama, the Goat Creek trail, and the Mazama trailhead to Goat Creek cut-off. Jack’s Trail and River Run Trail are open if accessed by the North Cascades trailhead on Highway 20. The Winthrop Trail to Patterson Lake Road and the Fish Hatchery to Wolf Creek Road crossing is open.
Pearrygin Lake State Park reopened last Thursday (Aug. 26) after being closed since mid-July. The park served as a retardant base for helicopters and Pearrygin Lake was used to refill water scooper planes and water tenders fighting the fires.
The Rex Derr mountain bike and hiking trail around the park reopened on Tuesday (Aug. 31), said Bryan Alexander, park ranger. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife public access near the park also opened again last week, he said.
“We’re so excited about having everybody back. Next weekend we’re full,” Alexander said.