CNW Fire Dispatch #10 – Touring the Okanogan

CNW Fire Dispatch #10 – Touring the Okanogan

Conservation Northwest / Sep 09, 2015 / Wildfire

Fire specialists suppressing a “bog fire” north of Omak, Washington. Photo: Mitch Friedman

Editor’s Note: This is the tenth of our fire dispatches from staff and colleagues that live or work in the areas impacted by this year’s fires. 

By Mitch Friedman, Executive Director

September in the Okanogan is still sublime, even in the aftermath of this epic fire season. While many landscapes burned very hot, it’s still possible to cruise through the county and not experience or notice much change. That’s important to know if you, like me, spent August barraged by urgent news reports and monitoring computerized fire maps, maps that don’t convey the varied manner in which the landscape burns within the fire perimeter.

From across a computer screen it can also be hard to understand the incredible suffering of those who lost homes, outbuildings, animals or worse yet, friends or family members to these fires. Days after a fire it can be difficult to imagine or relate to what people went through as these fires raced through the countryside and put communities on the brink. At least in the Okanogan, the frantic pace and magnitude of fires moving through the region seems far removed now. We can only see and feel what is left behind after the fires have come and gone.

To get a better sense of things on the ground, last week I toured several areas in Okanogan County that were affected by fires along with Conservation Associate Jay Kehnewho is based in Omak. In both the Okanogan and Methow valleys, I was heartened to see that, even as modest plumes of smoke still rose from countless slopes and ridges, life had returned towards normalcy for most people.

Even the fire camps were calm, due to the effects of cooler, wetter weather and effort on the fires. For many people and places, this was a tragic season. But it’s important to see the landscape in context and know that mostly it’s still the Okanogan we love. And recognize that even those places hardest hit will recover with time.

Some places burned very hot. But within the perimeters of these now famous fires, like Tunk Block or North Star, you see a mosaic of impact from heavily burned to some areas that were completely spared. This is nature’s way, reflecting the variables of vegetation, topography, weather, and I suppose luck. Much of what burned hot and broad was brush – grasslands and sage-steppe –that nature intends to burn with some frequency. Still, some forests in north-central and northeast Washington burned with severe intensity, including old forests, thinned forests and recent clear cuts. During this exceptionally hot and dry summer, everything was prone to burn.

It’s heartbreaking to see how much of the gorgeous open landscape of the Tunk Valley (a priority area for the Working for Wildlife Initiative), with its habitat for mule deer and sharp-tail grouse, is now black stubble. The bunchgrass will come back fast, looking lush and beautiful by next summer. But the sage and bitterbrush so important to the mule deer will take more than a decade. The pines of course will take even longer.

Here are before and after the fire pictures of the Tunk Valley for comparison:

TunkValleyBeforePhotoNancySoriano TunkValleyAfterPhotoMitchFriedman

Before photo: Nancy Soriano (left). After photo: Mitch Friedman (right). All other photos: Mitch Friedman

In this extremely hot, dry summer, even the banks of Tunk Creek, a dense thicket of willow in early August, burned to cinder.


The Okanogan Valley, with its highway, towns and farmhouses nestled between the outlines of the big fires of the Okanogan Complex, was well defended by roads, irrigation, and firefighters. This is often the way with fire.

The Twisp River Valley, for example, is entirely unscathed on its south side and along the river itself, despite the Twisp River Fire burning hot and quick in many areas north of the river. The below image from the Twisp Valley depicts a good example of how most of what happened was brushfire on the dry slopes above the valley bottom.

Twisp Valley Photo Mitch Friedman

Fires still smolder in some areas of the Okanogan, in Ferry and Stevens counties, and on the land of the Confederated Tribes of The Colville Reservation. But though these fires have the potential to reemerge in isolated fits and starts until weeks of rain or snowfall extinguish them for good, people are starting to put their lives back together. 

The mood in the communities of “Okanogan Country” is turning from crisis response to reflection, assessment and picking up the pieces. Planning for what can be done differently in the future. Taking stock of all that was lost, saying thanks for all that was spared, and holding out hope for a greener tomorrow.

Editor’s Note: The recent cooler and calmer weather is a big help for fire response efforts. However, many areas are not in the clear yet. Portions of the Wolverine, Okanogan, North Star, Kettle and Carpenter Road fires will likely burn until we get weeks of drenching fall rains.

For the latest official fire updates, we recommend Inciwebthis GIS map, and the Okanogan County Emergency ManagementChelan County Emergency ManagementColville Tribes Emergency ServicesStevens County Fire District #1 and Ferry County Sheriff’s Office / 911 Facebook pages.

We also want to express deep gratitude to all the firefighters, first responders, National Guard, U.S. Army servicemen and women, and all the other heroes working to keep our communities safe during this demanding fire season. Our thoughts and prayers are with all those impacted.