Large Canadian fire encroaches into county from north
Wildfires are now burning on all sides of the Methow Valley, with a fire burning near Blue Lake in the North Cascades, and a large fire that started in British Columbia pushing into Okanogan County over the weekend. The actively burning fires trapped the valley under a thick shroud of smoke last week that was declared “hazardous” over the weekend.
The Blue Lake Fire was detected a little before midnight on Monday, Aug. 14. It had grown to about 290 acres as of Tuesday (Aug. 22).
The fire is burning just south of the North Cascades Highway and near popular hiking and climbing trails, such as Blue Lake, Heather/Maple Pass, and the Pacific Crest Trail near Bridge Creek.
The North Cascades Highway was closed for a week from the Silver Star gate, 22 miles west of Winthrop, to Newhalem, about 51 miles in all, but was scheduled to reopen on Wednesday morning (Aug. 23) for through-traffic only, with a pilot car, according to the Washington State Department of Transportation. (See details in box.)
Numerous firefighting resources have responded to the Blue Lake Fire, including interagency hotshot crews, U.S. Forest Service Type 2 crews, fire engines, rappelers, smokejumpers, and helicopters with water buckets, the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest said on its Facebook page.
Fire managers plan to burn strategic areas to prevent the Blue Lake Fire from threatening high-value recreation resources and infrastructure. These firing operations are expected to increase the size of the fire. Firefighters are also looking for natural features like avalanche chutes that could act as a control feature, according to Inciweb, an interagency information-management system.
In addition to the North Cascades Highway, many trails are closed, including the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) from the North Cascades National Park boundary north to the junction with the Snowy Lakes Trail, and Maple Pass and Twisp Pass. There is a 70-mile detour for PCT hikers from Stehekin to the West Fork Methow trail in Lost River.
Blue Lake Fire behavior has been active, but had moderated by Monday. There are areas of isolated torching and spotting.
The Blue Lake Fire was 5% contained as of Tuesday. The cause of the fire is under investigation.
The Sourdough Fire near Diablo Lake had grown to almost 6,000 acres, with 12% containment as of Tuesday (Aug. 22).
Most of the fire growth has been in remote terrain in the inaccessible northern part of the fire, where it is expected to keep spreading. The fire consumed a significant area in the north on Friday, when it sent up a huge plume, but the fire hasn’t crossed creeks to the north and east, Northwest Incident Management Team 10 Operations Section Chief Dean Lange said.
Fire crews have been using the burn scar from the 2015 Goodell Fire near Newhalem as a control strategy. As of Friday (Aug. 18), they had burned out areas toward the west and brought the fire to that scar, which they believe will be a good spot to hold the fire, Lange said. Still, there’s plenty of fuel left to burn, so crews are carefully managing the fire in that area, he said.
Fire crews have been monitoring activity on the southwestern flank of the fire near the highway and Newhalem, with no significant flare-ups. Drones picked up heat near Newhalem, and a small fire east of there was being watched.
The fire has continued to propel boulders and burning trees onto the highway, making it hazardous for firefighters, but fire crews have kept the fire from spotting south of the road.
In the north, where the fire is burning at an elevation of about 4,000 feet, fire managers are using helicopter bucket drops, as weather and smoke permit, to keep the fire from spreading to higher elevations.
The fire is in patrol status near Diablo Lake and the community of Diablo. The Seattle City Light powerline from Newhalem along the highway has been reenergized, Lange said.
The Sourdough Fire was started by lightning on July 29.
The Crater Creek Fire, which has burned 109,000 acres in Canada, surged across the border into Okanogan County on Saturday (Aug. 19). As of Tuesday, it had burned almost 5,000 acres in northern Okanogan County, in the Pasayten Wilderness and the Loomis Natural Resources Conservation Area (NRCA).
The fire was burning on the eastern flank of the British Columbia Cascades when it exploded 10-fold in just one night last week, as two fires merged. Dozens of people had to be rescued from a remote lodge in Cathedral Provincial Park in British Columbia.
Much of the area where the Crater Creek Fire is burning is remote, and the fire is not currently threatening developed areas, according to the incident management team for the fire.
Because there is almost 5,000 feet of elevation difference in different regions of the fire, some areas are actively burning and some are more moderate, according to the fire managers.
The Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has closed the northern portion of the Loomis NRCA and the Cold Springs and Chopaka Lake campgrounds, along with other areas near the border. Many trails in the Pasayten Wilderness, including the Cathedral Driveway and Boundary Trail, are closed.
The Crater Creek Fire was ignited by lightning on July 22, 11 miles southwest of Keremeos, just north of the border.
South of the Methow, the Airplane Lake Fire had burned almost 1,900 acres near Lake Wenatchee. The fire was started by lightning on July 7.
After smoke hung over the valley for several days last week — with occasional clearing — air quality in the Methow Valley hit the “hazardous” category over the weekend. “Air Quality across the region is the worst in the U.S., and perhaps the world right now,” the National Weather Service (NWS) said on Sunday.
Some sensors that detect pollutants recorded over 500 on the scale that classifies anything above 300 as “hazardous.” On Sunday, the air-quality index hit about 450 on sensors from Mazama to Twisp.
Agencies that monitor air quality have extended alerts through Wednesday (Aug. 23) for all of eastern Washington, according to NWS.
North Cascades Highway to reopen
The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) planned to reopen the North Cascades Highway on Wednesday morning (Aug. 23) for through-traffic only, as of press time. WSDOT will have a pilot car to escort traffic through the Rainy Pass and Blue Lake area, according to WSDOT North Central Region Communications Manager Lauren Loebsack. Motorists should be prepared for a potential wait on either end, she said.
The highway has been closed from Newhalem, west of the Cascade Crest, for two weeks because of the Sourdough Fire near Diablo. That section is also scheduled to reopen.
The situation will be monitored and could change at any time because firefighting activity is ongoing and there could be flare-ups from burnouts near the roadway, Loebsack said. WSDOT is working with the fire-management team to clear debris along the highway.
All areas and trails accessed from the affected sections of highway are still closed, and people cannot stop and park, she said.