CNW Fire Dispatch #4: The scene in Twisp

CNW Fire Dispatch #4: The scene in Twisp

Conservation Northwest / Aug 27, 2015 / Wildfire

The Twisp River Fire map on Wednesday afternoon, August 26th. As of Thursday at noon, the fire is 85% contained with a fire line completed around the entire fire. Photo:

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

George Wooten lives in Twisp, working on forest and wildlands restoration and policy in north-central Washington as part of our Forest Field Program. He has been sending us regular fire updates over the past week, which we’ve arranged as a log here. Thank you for the unique perspectives George! 

By George Wooten, Conservation Associate and Okanogan Forest field staff

Thursday, August 20th

(The day after the Twisp River Fire blew up, forcing evacuations) 

I am writing this from my home office in Twisp, which was lowered from Level 3 (Get out now) to Level 2 (Be ready to leave) evacuation, allowing me to return. The three firefighter deaths are weighing heavily on everyone here. Many of us knew Tom Zbyszewski, an inspirational young man from a Forest Service family. He will be missed by all of us. 

My brush with the Twisp River Fire began on Wednesday afternoon, with a recorded phone message ordering us to evacuate immediately. Boom! My partner headed to Seattle with a carload of belongings and I stayed nearby in the Methow Valley at a friend’s house.

Yesterday (Wednesday), the Twisp fire was complete mayhem, with hundreds of fire trucks and constant sirens. Today, high winds temporarily cleared the air. Large smoke columns were coming from the northwest near Moccasin Lake Ranch halfway to Winthrop and Sun Mountain Lodge.

There was spotting south across the Twisp River today, and ten fire engines raced up there an hour ago. Because of these spot fires, the Forest Service is in the process of closing Black Pine Lake Campground (in the heart of the Lookout Wolf Pack’s range) and the Libby Creek area to nonresidents. A third route up Poorman Creek to Black Pine Lake is being kept open as a possible escape route for Twisp residents. Highway 20 remains closed to the north of us.

Staying calm but ready

Yesterday makes three evacuations in two years for me. I am trying to be flexible. Either I am over the danger, or all hell could break loose any minute.

Despite the evacuation orders, lots of Twisp stores are open. There was garbage pickup, power and Internet today, unlike last year during the Carlton Complex Fires. By this morning the air had cleared a bit and kids were walking the dogs and going about almost normal life, walking around town, but not too far from home. Open air cafes were full of people having dinner sharing stories.

There is a lot of half-information and rumor out there about where fire and danger are. But it shouldn’t be discounted, because sometimes it turns out to be true and important. Best sources of safety information are Okanogan County Emergency Management and talking to friends who were close to the fires.

We canceled the public part of our improv event tonight, but we will be practicing anyway (Editor’s Note: George is active with a Twisp improv and theater group). It is just what I need, along with some hugs, so call if you are nearby.

Tuesday, August 25th

Smoke in the air

The active Twisp River Fire perimeter has shifted to the west up the Twisp Valley. I am here ready to leave immediately, with my car packed in case it comes back towards town. I have several places to go if need be.

Things are quieter in town. But the fire, now managed as part of the Okanogan Complex, has continued to burn up the Twisp River Valley near Coal and Little Bridge Creeks.

Here is a photo of beautiful, downtown Twisp taken this morning showing smoke with visibility limited to two or three miles. When the photo was taken, the air quality in Twisp was “Unhealthy for Everyone”.

Twisp looking east, Monday Aug 24th, 2015. Photo George Wooten

Thanks to Lowes in Wenatchee for donating boxes of N95 Air Filter Masks for distribution in the Methow!  As it turns out the air quality maps on the web are often only approximate.

But you can estimate air quality using visibility (if you know the distance to surrounding landmarks for reference):

  • If visibility is under five miles:  Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups. The air quality is unhealthy for young children, adults over age 65, pregnant women, and people with heart and/or lung disease, asthma or other respiratory illness. These people should minimize outdoor activity.
  • Visibility under three miles:  The air quality is Unhealthy for Everyone. Young children, adults over age 65, pregnant women, and people with heart and/or lung disease, asthma or other respiratory illness should avoid all outdoor activities. Twisp is currently in this category.
  • Visibility under one mile:  The air quality is Very Unhealthy, and in some cases may be hazardous. Everyone should avoid all outdoor activities.
Choppers join the fight

While the Twisp River Fire was burning, the First Creek Fire was threatening our family cabin near Lake Chelan. Here is a photo of a Sikorsky sky crane helicopter with a tank of water headed for that fire.

Sikorsky sky crane helicopter Photo George Wooten August 24 2015

The First Creek Fire is part of the Chelan Complex Fires and is east of Lake Chelan and southwest of the town of Methow. These helicopters can suck 2,650 gallons out of Lake Chelan, and then drop it a mile away and be back in 5 minutes for another tankful. Though it costs thousands of dollars per hour to operate.

But the value was obvious the next morning, when the fire perimeter held and even shrank wherever there were helicopter water drops.

Crazy sexy face gear

This fashion statement got me a dinner date tonight. It’s true. It’s sexy. It’s patriotic.

Face gear. Photo George Wooten August 24th

As of 2:00 p.m. Monday, August 24, we are now at 267 ppm of PM25 smoke particles, or Very Unhealthy. Lowe’s Hardware of Wenatchee committed to donate as many N95 face masks as we need. Another pallet of donated face masks is expected according to a post on Okanogan County and Methow Valley Local Topics of Interest FB page. Thank you!

The other good news is that smoke blots the sun and cools the air like a cloud and helps lessen the severity of fires. It’s true. But please let it end soon.

Thursday, August 27th

“Wildfire or mild fire”

A Level 3 evacuation remains in effect for Twisp River Road and the upper Twisp River Drainage. The towns of Winthrop and Twisp are both on Level 2.

The Twisp River Fire is now 85% contained (according to the Okanogan County Emergency Management Facebook post) and below is this morning’s fire line update from Inciweb:

Twisp River Fire: Line construction is completed around the entire fire and crews are mopping up to further secure firelines. Crews have been moved to assist with other fires in the complex.

For me, this year’s fire season is a deja vu of last year’s Carlton Complex Fire. Knowing that we are in a drought and summer lightning storms are a given, my firefighter friends urged everyone to prepare for a second year of fire.

The tagline of the North Central Washington Prescribed Fire Council (where I represent Conservation Northwest) is “mild fire or wildfire, the choice is yours”. 

This acknowledges that fire is inevitable in dry forests. And if it’s applied with sound scientific guidance and in safe conditions (usually when it’s wetter in late fall and early spring) prescribed fire and controlled burns can provide significant benefits, reversing years of fire suppression, increasing forest resilience, limiting summer fire intensity and reducing threats to communities. Look for more on that in later blog posts.

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.