As 2021 began and the COVID pandemic’s range of affects still dominated the news, it looked like a major story would need to come along to displace the coronavirus as the big local headline of the year.
As fate would have it, that happened in the Methow Valley as two significant wildfires once again scarred the landscape and shaped the community’s summer — and beyond. The fires displaced COVID as the top news story of the year, based on voting by our readers, but the pandemic’s enduring presence continues to keep it top of mind for all of us.
Another summer story, heat extremes that broke local records, had something of an overlap with the fire stories, and had health implications as well.
A surprising breakthrough story was the Methow Valley biochar project whose launch benefitted from state funding.
Because of ties in the voting, there are actually 13 stories included in this year’s list. As usual, some of the top news stories — as with COVID — were continuations from previous years, and could show up again in the future. You’ll have a chance to help decide which stories will claim the top spots for 2022. Thanks to everyone who participated in the balloting. It’s always instructive to see what’s most noteworthy to our readers.
1 The fires of 2021
Two major wildfires impacted the Methow Valley in 2021, leading to long-term evacuations and well over 100,000 acres burned.
The first, the Cedar Creek Fire, was started by a lightning strike on July 8, just after record-high temperatures left the state’s forestland parched.
By the time the fire was effectively contained by the first snowfall of the season, the Cedar Creek fire burned more than 55,500 acres between the Twisp River drainage and Early Winters Creek.
As the Cedar Creek fire was still smoldering in the deep woods northwest of Mazama, a second fire started on July 16 near the intersection of West Chewuch Road and Cub Creek Road — later called the Cub Creek 2 Fire.
The Cub Creek Fire was later determined to be caused by a resident attempting to fix an irrigation pump with a propane torch. It destroyed several structures in its first few days and eventually stretched to more than 70,000 acres, from its origin at the Cub Creek Drainage north as far as Disaster Creek.
Each fire led to lengthy evacuations, road and recreation-area closures and a halt to many tourism activities through fall. Sun Mountain Lodge was evacuated and closed for several weeks, though its grounds were not burned. The Freestone Inn was also closed for a time, and was just outside the fire’s path. Both underwent renovations and replaced furniture to get rid of smoky smells, but their buildings weren’t burned.
Several weeks of hazardous air quality conditions — for a few days the worst in the world — caused by the fires led to comparisons to The Lord of the Rings’ Mordor, N-95 mask distribution and a giveaway of 2,000 air purifiers by Instant Brands.
The fires burned a number of popular trails, some of which will remain closed for the immediate future.
As both fires grew, spurred by a heat wave with temperatures in excess of 110 degrees followed by lightning storms and high wind events, they were managed by various regional and national incident management teams, which brought hundreds of firefighters and other personnel to the valley. Some of the teams, including Great Basin Incident Management Team 1, led by Incident Commander Evans Kuo, were returning to the valley. Kuo and several of his team members responded to the Methow Valley during the Carlton Complex Fire.
In the first week of August, Kuo told the Methow Valley News his team was finding and reusing their old fire lines in the Little Bridge Creek area.
Though there was some concern that the Cedar Creek Fire could jump into the Twisp River Drainage, those fears didn’t materialize, and by September the fires were largely contained and turned back over to local U.S. Forest Service crews for management. However, crews didn’t expect the fires to be completely out until the first snowfall.
2 COVID continuum
It may feel like we’ve been living with COVID-19 forever, but looking back over 2021 shows how much has actually changed.
The year started with the very first vaccines, but only for people in high-risk groups — health care workers and people in long-term care facilities. Everyone else anxiously awaited their turn. Some people hung out at vaccination clinics, hoping to be the lucky recipient of an extra dose.
School was largely remote, with just two days a week of classroom instruction and lots of time in online classes.
Restaurants, gyms and movie theaters were closed or subject to major restrictions. People weren’t even supposed to gather at home with friends or others from outside their household. Everyone was hoping to meet certain targets so the county could move ahead in the state’s phased reopening plan.
Okanogan County started the year with 1,756 total cases and 32 deaths from COVID. Twisp had had a total of 32 cases, and Winthrop had had 25. Those numbers skyrocketed over the next 12 months, ending the year with 5,784 total cases and 77 deaths. Twisp registered 209 cases by year’s end, and Winthrop had 137.
Within a few months, vaccinations were going so smoothly that anyone over the age of 16 could get a shot. Attention turned to how to persuade the more than half of the county’s residents who are still unvaccinated to get their shot. In October, the state ordered vaccine mandates for state employees, school employees, and health care workers.
By the spring, restaurants had reopened and concerts and sporting events were on, albeit with restrictions on occupancy. The state proclaimed a full reopening on June 30, restoring some normalcy.
Students went back to school in-person in the fall, wearing masks and with as many classes and activities outdoors as possible. Voluntary COVID tests were available for students and staff.
In the summer, the highly contagious — and virulent — Delta variant overwhelmed health care facilities across the state, raising the specter of that medical care would be rationed. The surge started to level off in the fall, but case counts didn’t really drop until late December.
As December drew to a close, a year-end spike in cases had health officials worried that Washington was starting to see infections from the highly contagious Omicron variant, which has already caused record case rates across the country.
3 Biochar emerges
After a long permitting process, the first batches of locally produced biochar — shiny, black granules that can help soil retain moisture and nutrients and cut composting time in half — were turned out by a small pyrolizer in a one-year pilot project.
The biochar project is the brainchild of Tom and Gina McCoy, who launched the nonprofit C6 Forest to Farm to test the processing of wood chips, slash and sawdust in what could be a key intervention in reducing the carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to climate change.
Pyrolysis heats biomass beyond typical combustion temperatures in a nearly oxygen-free environment that, when properly calibrated, burns off all the volatile compounds.
The pilot project will determine the optimal processing time and temperature for different types of trees — mainly Ponderosa pine and Douglas fir. C6 will also study the effects of adding different amounts of biochar to soil to measure its effectiveness at retaining water and nutrients and increasing productivity.
The small pyrolizer — which fits on a utility trailer — is stationed at an Okanogan County gravel pit on the Twisp-Winthrop Eastside Road. If the pilot project is successful, C6 hopes to create an industrial-sized facility in the Methow Valley.
C6’s ultimate goal is to reduce the risk of extreme wildfire by supporting wide-scale forest health treatments and removing small-diameter trees that aren’t commercially viable as timber.
The project has attracted interest as far away as Albania. Closer to home, it got backing from the Methow’s three state legislators, who successfully lobbied for $160,000 in the state budget to support the effort.
4 Water banking proposal
State environmental regulators in March suspended consideration of an “area-wide water permit” application that would have allowed a private corporation to acquire water rights anywhere in the Columbia River basin, hold them in a water bank, and then sell or lease portions of the water permit to mitigate for new downstream water uses.
Elected officials and organizations throughout the Columbia River basin spoke out against the sweeping proposal, saying the corporation could buy water rights in upstream tributaries and move them downstream, making that water unavailable to landowners and residents where the water originated.
Local officials and residents warned that water rights in tributaries in the upper reaches of the Columbia River basin, like the Methow River watershed, would be especially attractive under the area-wide permit scenario, because they could be sold as mitigation credits for new uses anywhere downstream to the Pacific Ocean.
The Department of Ecology announced it was suspending work on the application from New York-based Crown Columbia Water Resources LLC after hearing concerns about broad questions related to water banking policy, including out-of-basin water transfers, water speculation, and out-of-state investment in Washington’s water resources.
Creation of a publicly owned water bank in the Methow Valley became a real possibility when the state budget approved last summer included up to $14 million for a pilot project that allows public entities to buy water rights and develop water banks in rural headwater counties, with $2 million earmarked for the Methow Valley basin. The funding will help public entities and their partners preserve water rights in their basin for local use and to protect stream flows.
In June, the Methow Valley Watershed Council began exploring how to set up a local water bank, meeting with representatives from the Washington Association of Counties and the state Department of Ecology to gather more information.
The process of setting up a water bank is complex and involves extensive reviews, Ecology approval and comment periods, said Paul Jewell, policy director at the Washington Association of Counties.
“We’ve got two years to put this on the ground and prove to the Legislature that it’s a good solution,” Jewell told the council.
5 (tie) County moratoriums
People on more than 200 lots in the Methow Valley may be able to build a house and use a well for water after a November decision by Okanogan County Superior Court Judge Henry Rawson in a lawsuit brought by Okanogan County against the Washington Department of Ecology.
Rawson ruled that people who own lots created by subdivision after March 2002 have the right to move ahead with building, and to use a well that draws from the Methow River to supply their house.
But Rawson rejected the county’s interpretation in another issue in the lawsuit. He said it’s unlawful for property owners to divide a lot with an existing house and well to create one new lot for one additional house supplied by its own well. Doing so would constitute group use, Rawson found.
The situations are all connected with the Methow Rule, which governs water use in the Methow watershed and allows people to use a well for single-domestic use, but not group use. In 2002, the state Supreme Court found that a developer had to obtain a group water right on multiple parcels created by subdivision and couldn’t simply split up the right for one residential well.
Ecology maintains that any parcel created through subdivision after the March 2002 ruling would result in group water use. But Okanogan County has continued to approve building permits and water adequacy for many of these lots. The county contends that these property owners’ right to build is vested, since no one challenged the approvals.
Still, to protect the county from lawsuits, over the past two years the commissioners have placed moratoriums on some subdivisions and building permits.
In public hearings over the building-permit moratorium, the commissioners heard emotional testimony from people who have made substantial investments in property that they can’t develop.
People can still divide land for agriculture or a non-residential use. And property that draws from the Columbia River, not the Methow River, is also exempt from the moratorium.
5 (tie) Weather extremes
The Methow Valley saw extreme highs and lows in its weather in 2021 — ranging between a record high of 112 in Mazama on June 30 and lows in the single digits the last week of December.
The heat wave spanning the last week of June through the first week of July was one of the hottest on record in North Central Washington. Starting with a high of 96 on June 26, Mazama peaked at 112 four days later — 22 degrees hotter than its average for that time of year. Winthrop reached 107 degrees on June 29, 19 degrees higher than normal, but lower than a heat wave recorded in 1924.
Meanwhile, Omak hit 117 on June 29. Four people died due to the heat in the county, though none were in the Methow Valley.
In the second week of July, the heatwave broke, but unfortunately with lightning storms in the mountains that sparked wildfires. The wildfires also led to weeks of hazardous air quality, with many days falling between the 400 to 500 range for airborne particles On the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Air Quality Index, a reading of 201 means unhealthy conditions for everyone.
While people with underlying health conditions such as asthma reported physical health issues, many people also reported the smoke caused mental health issues as well.
In response to that, in August, the Instant Brands company donated 2,000 of its large-size HEPA filters, each with a replacement filter, to the Methow Valley. Residents only had to show proof of residence to get one for their home or business, or both.
Organizations including the Town of Winthrop, Okanogan County Emergency Management and Clean Air Methow worked to distribute the filters at the Winthrop Barn Aug. 18, and the filters were gone in just a few hours.
The heat wave was over and normal temperatures returned by late August, but there were a few more strangely high temperatures to report.
On Nov. 17, temperatures reached the mid 60s and were accompanied by winds up to 53 miles per hour in Winthrop, and as high as 67 miles per hour in higher elevations.
Then on Dec. 1, Winthrop registered a high of 71 degrees, thanks to “Chinook winds,” the National Weather Service reported. The high temperature was more than twice the normal high of 33 for that time of year, according to the weather service. Meanwhile, Omak hit 74.
By the last week of December, snow had fallen and cold temperatures were back. An “Arctic Air Mass” hit North-Central Washington, dropping high temperatures to the single digits, with windchills far below zero.
5 (tie) Twisp Restoration Project
A draft Environmental Assessment on the Twisp Restoration Project released in late 2020 generated nearly 1,000 written comments from businesses, government agencies, community organizations or clubs and individuals, which were under review by the U.S. Forest Service in the first few months of 2021.
The final version of the Environmental Assessment was scheduled to be released this summer, but its release was delayed by summer wildfires, particularly the Cedar Creek Fire.
The Twisp Restoration Project is intended to do a variety of projects on 77,000 acres of land in the Twisp River watershed, including thinning, over the next 30 years. The project is intended to address a number of issues, including fish passage and aquatic habitat, wildlife habitat, timber health, wildfire hazard and safe roads and trails.
Commenters voiced concerns about native species including lynx, moose, Chinook salmon, steelhead and others.
Many commenters were concerned that thinning projects would cut some of the area’s largest trees.
The Forest Service is reportedly working on a new version of the plan in light of fire damage over the summer.
8 (tie) Fire District 6 station
A major local news story of 2009 was Okanogan County Fire District 6’s purchase of a property on Horizon Flats Road in Winthrop, at a cost of $325,000, as the proposed site of a new fire station to replace the district’s cramped, outdated and unsafe fire hall on Englar Street.
That proposed site, its price and subsequent failed efforts to fund the new fire hall all became controversial over the ensuing dozen years, and for a time the district reconsidered its relocation plans.
The district overcame all those obstacles, won voter approval of a levy increase to support construction of the new fire hall, and broke ground in 2021. Completion and occupation are scheduled for later this year.
The total project is projected to cost about $4 million and is paid for through an increased levy approved by district voters in May 2020, and $500,000 of a $1.8 million grant from the Bruno and Evelyne Betti Foundation. The building will replace the district’s 4,400-square-foot station on Englar Street, which it rents from the town of Winthrop.
The nearly 12,000-square-foot station will sit on a 5-acre parcel on Horizon Flats Road, and will include six vehicle bays, a meeting room, a multipurpose room, dining room, kitchen, offices and training space, and a first for the district — sleeping quarters.
At one time the district’s commissioners considered other potential sites in Winthrop but concluded they could not find one as suitable. The district created a site advisory committee in 2016 to evaluate other potential locations after citizens complained that the district did not adequately involve the public in planning a new station. Citizens also raised concerns about the Horizon Flats property, particularly the steep, curving road that provides access to the site.
A proposal developed in 2012 to build a 12,500-square-foot station at a cost of about $2.4 million drew public criticism as too expensive. A levy increase to fund the new station was defeated by voters in 2014.
8 (tie) Grizzly restoration
As 2021 began, a lawsuit challenged the Trump administration’s decision to abruptly end a six-year study on restoring grizzly bears to the North Cascades.
The decision to stop planning for grizzly bear recovery in the North Cascades violates the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA), which requires conservation of wildlife listed as threatened or endangered, according to the lawsuit by the Center for Biological Diversity.
The lawsuit, filed in December 2020, asked that the National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the two lead agencies for grizzly recovery, be ordered to resume planning to restore the threatened species to the North Cascades Ecosystem.
Trump’s interior secretary announced in the summer of 2020 that a draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for grizzly restoration developed over the previous six years would be shelved. The announcement was made at a meeting in Omak hosted by Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside, who has opposed restoring the bears to historical habitat in the North Cascades.
“The Trump administration’s purely political decision to axe this conservation program was a massive blow to the grizzly bear recovery program,” said Andrea Zaccardi, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity.
As of January 2022, the lawsuit is still pending, Zaccardi said last week. “We have been staying the case in hopes of initiating settlement talks, which won’t begin until a director of FWS [U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service] is confirmed. Hopefully that will happen soon.”
The North Cascades Ecosystem encompasses 9,800 square miles in North Central Washington and 3,800 square miles in British Columbia. The U.S. portion includes all of the North Cascades National Park, and most of the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie and Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forests (including the Methow Valley Ranger District).
The area has been identified as one of six possible grizzly bear recovery zones in the United States, with habitat capable of supporting about 280 grizzly bears. There have been no verified sightings of grizzly bears in the Washington portion of the ecosystem since 1996. Planning for grizzly recovery in the North Cascades has been underway for more than a decade.
8 (tie) Wagner ranch purchase
After a previous attempt to purchase the property fell through, the Methow Conservancy stepped up with a contract (and fundraising effort) to buy the historic Wagner Ranch on East Chewuch Road, and intends to donate the property to the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation to honor the valley’s Indigenous people.
The Conservancy said planned to purchase the 324-acre property from the Western Rivers Conservancy (WRC), a Portland, Oregon-based nonprofit that buys and permanently protects land throughout the Western states. The WRC purchased the land in 2018 for about $3.3 million, with the intent of eventually conveying it to the Yakama Nation’s Upper Columbia Habitat Restoration Project. The sale was announced in July 2019.
The expectation was that the parcel would be sold to the Yakama Nation using anticipated funding from the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), but he BPA had decided not to fund the project. So the WRC put the Wagner Ranch back on the market, leading to the Conservancy’s action.
The Wagner Ranch is about 5 miles north of Winthrop, east of the Chewuch River. Because of its scenic setting including a pond, pastures and a pristine collection of buildings, the ranch is well-known to locals and visitors who travel on East Chewuch Road. The ranch includes 1.6 miles of Chewuch River frontage, and adjoins a 14,800-acre unit of the Methow Wildlife Area.
Conservancy Executive Director Jason Paulsen said the conservancy intends to make a gift of all the property, but added that a small “uplands,” non-riparian portion of the ranch that is east of East Chewuch Road might be sold to help finance the purchase if necessary.
According to “The Smiling Country, a History of the Methow Valley,” by former Winthrop librarian Sally Portman, Otto and Kay Wagner purchased the Twisp lumber mill in 1939. The Wagners eventually bought what was then called the Leedy place on East Chewuch Road. The ranch was later sold to the Haub family, owners of Sun Mountain Lodge.
9 (tie) Comp plan, at last
After half a dozen years of lawsuits, thousands of pages of public input, and multiple deliberations by planning and county commissioners, Okanogan County has a new comprehensive plan. The county commissioners adopted the plan just two days before the year ended.
The comp plan sets out the vision for the county for the next 20 years, describing how and where the county will grow and the lifestyle its residents want.
The comp plan is a philosophical document that serves as the basis for other county plans. The zoning code will contain more details about exactly where development should take place and what kinds of activities and industries are permissible. Plans that protect water and wildlife habitat and that prepare the county for emergencies will also be based on ideals in the comp plan.
Although the new plan has similarities to the 2014 plan, noting the county’s diversity of landscapes and people, it also changes the emphasis.
The vision statement in the 2014 plan described “the tremendous extremes in geography and weather patterns [that] have led to great diversity in occupation and lifestyle.” It referred to “land and natural resources” and “a clean and healthy environment” for a place to prosper and grow.
The 2021 plan describes “the diverse and rugged natural environment [that] has fostered a range of historic uses and distinct communities” and specifically notes that “clean air, clean water and a healthy environment” nourish wildlife and recreational opportunities. The vision statement in the new plan honors the county’s Native American heritage in the very first sentence.
The new plan explicitly supports the opportunity for communities throughout the county to develop their sub-area plans to reflect their own values.
It’s too soon to say if the groups that sued the county in court (two conservation groups and the Yakama Nation) over the 2014 plan – its alleged failure to protect water quality and quantity, address wildfire risk, and protect agricultural and forest lands – will find the county’s new plan satisfactory and in compliance with state law.
10 (tie) Friends of the Pool
Friends of the Pool, the nonprofit organization that is working to replace the Wagner Memorial Pool in Twisp with a new facility to serve the entire Methow Valley community, made progress in 2021as it launched a feasibility study to come up with proposals for building and funding the ambitious project.
Friends of the Pool launched its “Big Splash” campaign for a new swimming pool in October with a public meeting to gather input from the community. Ballard*King & Associates, a recreation consulting and planning firm based in Colorado, invited people to share their ideas about a future aquatics facility. The first phase of the feasibility study involves conducting a market analysis that looks at demographics of the Methow Valley and use of the existing pool.
Taking into consideration community input, consultants will consider potential amenities for the new facility and possible locations, and come up with a conceptual plan. They will develop information on construction and operating costs, and analyze how a special recreation district and partnerships could be used to fund a new pool facility.
A final report will be issued in April or May of this year, and there will then be more opportunity for public comment.
The need for a year-round swimming pool was a common theme expressed at the community meeting in 2021. The pool, owned and operated by the Town of Twisp, is only open two-and-half months a year. In 2021 it opened June 19 and closed for the summer about a month later due to unhealthy conditions caused by wildfire smoke.
An assessment of the Wagner Pool by an engineering firm a few years ago concluded that the Wagner Pool, built in 1967, “has outlived its life,” and confirmed that replacing the pool was more cost-effective than repairing it. Since 2005, Friends of the Pool has raised money and given more than $400,000 for pool repairs and operating expenses.
One possible funding mechanism is a special recreation district that levies taxes to support the facility. In 2014 a proposed recreation district to support recreation facilities valley-wide was turned down by voters, but a pool or aquatic center proposal would have different parameters.
The Wagner Memorial Pool is currently owned and operated by the Town of Twisp, across from the town park. It has been heavily used as a valley-wide resource and as the training and competition facility for the Methow Valley Killer Whales swim team.
10 (tie) Twisp civic building
As the year ended, the new Twisp civic building and regional communications center had taken full shape on Glover Street, although it won’t be completed and occupied until later in 2022. When it opens for business, the building will represent more than a decade of planning, public debate, design revisions and funding efforts.
Ultimately, a last-minute, $1.5-millon appropriation in the state’s capital project budget, coming at the end of the 2021 state legislative session, completed the necessary funding to allow the town to tear down the old town hall and start construction on the new civic center on the same site.
As planning progressed over several years, the town struggled to match resources with projected costs, even with the state capital funds allocated in previous years. In May 2020, the first round of construction bids for the new building came in about $1 million higher than the $3 million cost estimated at the time by Architects West, the Idaho-based firm that designed the facility. That caused construction on the project, which was expected to begin in 2020, to be postponed to 2021.
A second round of construction bids, which were opened in February 2021, came in higher than the projected cost of about $2.835 million. The lowest bid of the three submitted was $3.587 million by Leone & Keeble of Spokane. The Town Council agreed to award a construction contract for the new building, contingent on approval of a federal loan to cover the funding gap. Sales tax, contingency funds, management and other related expenses bring the total project costs to about $4.7 million. The state capital project funding made the federal loan unnecessary.
Public Works Director Andrew Denham and his staff, working with the architects, “value engineered” the building’s specs to bring costs down.
Plans to replace the building began to take shape in 2011, after repairs to a leaky roof brought a host of other problems to light. The wildfire disaster and subsequent power and communications outages in 2014 also made clear the need for a building that could serve as a command center during future emergencies, town officials concluded.
The new one-story building was determined to need more square footage than the current town hall. To make room for construction of the new civic building, the Twisp Council approved vacating a portion of Third Avenue.
Honorable mention: Cyber attack takes down county’s computer systems; Gebbers reaches settlement with state in COVID case. Also on the ballot: Gray wolves delisting challenged; appeals court ruling opens French Creek Road; new county prosecutor appointed; Burma Shores residential development proposal draws concerns; county sets moratorium on new cannabis farms; Methow Valley School District converts to middle school format; November local elections; Konrads pursue annexation, affordable housing project; Twisp council considers dissolution of PDA.
2020’s top stories
2020’S top stories
2 Recall Jim DeTro
3 Cold Springs, Pearl Hill fires
4 Grizzlies in the North Cascades
5 (tie) Ken Westman’s legacy
5 (tie) Subdivision moratorium
5 (tie) Portman retires
8. Twisp Restoration Project
9. French Creek Road dispute
10. (tie) Local elections
10. (tie) District 6 levy approved
Natalie Johnson, Don Nelson, Marcy Stamper and Ann McCreary contributed to this article.