Matchsticks or mosaic: Michael Liu on the Cub and Cedar Creek fires in the Methow

Matchsticks or mosaic: Michael Liu on the Cub and Cedar Creek fires in the Methow

Conservation Northwest / Jul 30, 2021 / Forest Field Program, North Cascades, Wildfire

2021 Fire Dispatch #3: Matchsticks or mosaic in the Methow

*Editor’s Note: During the big wildfires that burned across eastern Washington in 2015, we published a series of “dispatches” from our staff living and working in communities affected by fire. As 2021’s fire season as gotten off to a historically challenging start, we’ve again encouraged our team to share their perspectives from the field. Read our 2021 Wildfire Dispatch #1 on fire in the shrub-steppe, and #2 on fire in Lytton B.C.

Michael Liu joined our staff last year after a distinguished career with the U.S. Forest Service, including as Methow District Ranger. We are honored to have his experience, expertise and community relationships on our team. He previously blogged about wildfires and forest management in October 2020.


By Michael Liu, Okanogan Forest lead

It’s easy to see your glass as half empty when your morning ritual consists of checking PurpleAir to see if you have the worst air quality in the world, looking at weather forecasts, wondering where the next evacuation notice will be, and tuning in to daily fire briefings on Facebook.

Fire and smoke as the Cub Creek Fire burns a hillside near Winthrop in north-central Washington. Photo: Inciweb

Such is life in north-central Washington’s Methow Valley this summer. It’s what we have come to expect living in a fire-prone environment.

While Seattle was setting records for temperatures that hit 107o F in late June, the Methow Valley had endless days of triple digit heat and temperatures that peaked as high as 117o F. This resulted in tinder dry conditions ripe for ignition when a series of thunderstorms hit the area on July 8 and started the Cedar and Varden Creek fires. They rapidly merged together and closed Highway 20.

Then on July 16, human activity started the Cub Creek 2 Fire, adding to area-wide closures and causing multiple evacuation notices in the Chewuch valley near Winthrop.

As a retired forest ranger, I have fought and managed wildfires and their aftermath for 36 years. Over the course of that time, I have come to see my glass as half full. When these fires are out, the forest will not be entirely matchsticks. Instead, there will be a mosaic. Life will rise out of the ashes, like the Phoenix. When nature is out of balance, it will reset, and it will heal. This gives me hope to be cautiously optimistic.

We have a lot to be thankful for. Despite the weather conditions, low availability of resources, and rapid fire spread, the first responders and fire resources on-hand did an amazing job of protecting both life and property.

As I write this, the incident management teams are making significant progress at confining the Methow fires and taking advantage of favorable weather conditions. Wildland firefighting crews are working tirelessly maintaining firelines and coordinating aerial water and fire retardent drops to ensure the town of Winthrop, nearby homes and neighborhoods, and facilities like Sun Mountain Lodge remain safe.

While there’s cause for optimism as containment grows, our community is not out of the woods yet. And it’s only late July.

The fires are roughly 52,889 (Cedar) and 62,489 (Cub 2) acres in size [updated on August 12, 2021]. By comparison, The Carlton Complex Fire (2014) was 256,000 acres, the Diamond Creek Fire (2017) in the Pasayten Wilderness was 128,000 acres, and the Crescent Fire (2018) in the Twisp River was just under 53,000 acres. The Cold Springs / Pearl Hill Fires (2020), the largest in Washington state’s modern history which my colleague Jay Kehne wrote about last fall, burned a combined area of nearly 400,000 acres of shrub-steppe, rangeland and dry forest.

Historically, fires would have been smaller and more frequent in the arid region of Eastern Washington. This results in a more fire-resilient landscape composed of a mosaic of different stand conditions. That means fire had a more difficult time moving through the landscape and often burned less severely due to recurring fires over time. Similar to the Twisp River fire, I am hopeful that the final landscape pattern left behind from the current fires will bring the area back to a more stable and resilient landscape. One where there is a mosaic of low, mixed, and high severity burned patches.

When the smoke clears and it’s safe to visit, come and see for yourself. While you are here, support the local community and businesses. They have been hard hit and could use some encouragement. It will take time, but the land and the forest will recover. So will our community; so will we. 

As always, as a member of Conservation Northwest’s Forest Field Progam in the Okanogan, I will be working with state and federal land management agencies (primarily through community engagement and forest health collaboratives) to look at ways to aid recovery through ecologically-based restoration, and to improve resiliency against the next large fire through tactics such as selective thinning, brush clearing and prescribed burning. We’ll keep you posted as the smoke clear, and the work continues.

Learn more about our work on WILDFIRE and for HEALTHY FORESTS
A valley in the Pasayten Wilderness after 2017’s Diamond Creek Fire, showing a natural ‘mosaic’ burn pattern. Photo: Michael Liu