Colville, Okanogan County residents in need of crews for wildfires

Jul 16, 2021, 2:58 PM | Updated: 4:20 pm
The Cedar Creek Fire in Okanogan County, as seen from Winthrop 20 miles away. (Inciweb)

In the plateau lands of eastern Okanogan County on the Colville Reservation, the Chuweah Creek Fire has grown to more than 50 square miles and destroyed 11 buildings.

No people have been hurt, but, according to the incident website, seven homes — three of which were primary residences — have been lost, as well as numerous livestock.

“Luckily no people have been injured, but we’re pretty much heartbroken over the loss of homes and the animals,” said Kathy Moses, public information officer for the Mount Tolman Fire Center.

The fire has displaced hundreds of residents of Nespelem since it first broke out during a lightning storm on Monday night, and some areas still remain under Level 2 evacuation, meaning people should be ready to leave at a moment’s notice.

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Moses said that as the fire is growing, it is also spreading east, potentially toward more homes in the small community of Keller. The fire is 20-percent contained. She worries that they may not be able to stop the flames in time, before more homes are taken.

While nearly 35,000 acres — about 100 times the area of Seattle’s Magnuson Park — is one of the state’s largest fires, there are only so many resources to go around in a summer when the state has already seen a record number of fires.

“There are so many fires in the area that we’re having a hard time filling all the requests that we put in for resources,” Moses said, adding, “A lot of the resources that we need are actually people. We need people like [bull]dozer bosses. We need more crews.”

The aircraft being used to fight the Chuweah Creek Fire is being shared with other fires, and Moses said that four other homes came very close this week to igniting.

“We’re fourth in the priority as far as fires,” Moses explained. “There are three other fires that are larger than ours, so there are resources going toward those fires. With so many fires in the area, resources are really slim at this time.”

Luckily, electrical and phone lines are coming back up again, so residents can stay in the loop on important safety information.

For the general manager of the local utilities company, the fire hit close to home. Kevin Black watched as the flames got closer and closer to the main warehouse of the Nespelem Valley Electric Cooperative.

“It stopped within feet of it, hitting the grass right next to the building,” he said. “If you look at the hill, it’s black, and then it stopped right before it hit the structures.”

The small electrical co-op, which provides power to about 1,500 people in and around Nespelem, suffered losses during the current fire, but they’re grateful it wasn’t worse. Black said he and other residents were worried they might see a repeat of last summer’s disaster in Malden, in which a wildfire destroyed an entire town.

“There were several structures that were lost, houses, and that was tragic, that people lost everything,” he said. “But the town of Nespelem got pretty lucky that it didn’t travel further into town.”

Black said they lost around “between 20 and 35 power poles” in the blaze.

“There are poles that are missing right now; they’re just cross-arms up in the air being held 30 feet in the air by wires,” he described. “The pole incinerated like a candle.”

The power company had to de-energize some of the lines due to the fire, but Black says the majority of the customers still without power — those who can come back online without rebuilding their homes — should have power again within the next three days.

But the evidence of the fire remains. Black said on his drive into work, the hillsides he used to admire are now completely charred.

For Moses and the people of the Colville Tribe, the loss of trees and other pieces of nature represents not just an economic loss, but a cultural and spiritual loss as well.

“This has been a pretty devastating time for the Colville Confederated Tribes. The fire is currently burning in our timber, and our timber, and all of our resources, and the people are very important to us,” Moses said. “And we just hope that everybody understands that this has been a very serious fire for us, and we just hope that you continue to keep us in your prayers.”

Another Okanogan fire

On the opposite end of Okanogan County, the Cedar Creek and Delancy Fires (about 4 square miles) have shut down 12 miles of the North Cascades Highway just east of the pass, cutting off the northernmost way across the Cascade Mountains.

Areas around Mazama are under Level 1 and Level 2 evacuations, with people still in their homes, but ready to leave immediately if the fire gets closer.

The Cedar Creek Fire combined with what had been known as the Varden Fire. Because the fire is in an area with thick woods and plenty of fuel, it is spreading quickly. That means it is too dangerous for firefighters to be using direct methods to fight it, such as using water. Instead, they have to attack it from further away, with strategies like bulldozing containment lines.

“This fire is in a bad spot, there is dead and down timber in there … this fire is not going to get directly put out, they are going to have to look for ways to create some opportunities for stopping this in certain places,” said Okanogan County Commissioner Andy Hover at a public meeting on Thursday.

For the small ‘Wild West’ themed town of Winthrop, just 15 miles east of the closure, the fire has cut off one of roughly three ways into town during the summer tourist season.

Garth Mudge, owner of Glassworks of Winthrop glass shop downtown on Riverside Avenue, said while he is feeling the impacts a bit, he is still seeing visitors in town from all over Washington and other states.

“It’s a little slower than it was, but there are still people here … I think it would be busier if the road was open,” Mudge said.

Business owners, well-versed in fire preparation from previous years, are taking steps to protect their buildings by trimming tall grasses in front of their shops, and spraying fire retardant. One person who has a bulldozer has even offered to dig a fire line to protect the town if it comes to it.

“The sidewalks are even wood here. Most places, the sidewalks wouldn’t burn up. So it pays to think about it,” Mudge said. “The best we can hope for is that the wind doesn’t blow really hard like it has before.”

Todd Carter, an incident meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Spokane office said the heavy winds through the Methow Valley can create a challenge for fires, though he is hopeful that cooler temperatures and moisture in the air for a day or two may help curb the flames.

For now, Mudge and the other business owners are counting their blessings, grateful that the fire is still 20 miles away.

“It’s a little smoky, it’s been worse though. And we’re not under evacuation,” Mudge said. “We’ve had fire a lot closer than it is right now … people here know what to do.”

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Colville, Okanogan County residents in need of crews for wildfires