Fire closure of North Cascades Highway is hurting local businesses

Aug 17, 2023, 2:03 PM | Updated: 2:41 pm

cascades fire highway closure...

(Photo from WSDOT)

(Photo from WSDOT)

As the Sourdough wildfire in the North Cascades grew to 3,000 acres, another fire cropped up nearby, causing more than double the road closures along North Cascades Highway.

The Sourdough Fire is burning in Diablo in the Ross Lake National Recreation area. It has burned 2,953 acres and is 11% contained, according to Inciweb. The new fire, the Blue Lake Fire, is burning on the other side of State Route 20.

More fire news: Sourdough fire reaches nearly 3,000 acres, 11% contained

Fire managers and the Washington State Department of Tramsportation (WSDOT) said SR 20 is now closed for approximately 50 miles from Newhalem to Silver Star Mountain, and it’s having a real impact on businesses near the Methow Valley in tourist destinations like Winthrop.

Bart Bradshaw owns Pardners Mini Market along SR 20 in Winthrop and said the state should reconsider the closure.

“If this was Highway 2, or if this was I-90. They’d figure out a way to keep it open,” Bradshaw said.

Bradshaw said in other situations, the state has taken the initiative to keep traffic moving.

“Even if they put a pilot car on it, or some flagmen or just something, I feel they could keep it open if they wanted to,” Bradshaw said.

WSDOT responded to KIRO Newsradio’s request for comment, claiming safety is the department’s priority.

“That doesn’t change based on which highway or which community it travels through,” Lauren Loebsack, the Communications Manager for WSDOT, stated in an email. “We are acutely aware, as people who live in the communities that we serve, that this route is used heavily in the summer to take advantage of the North Cross, not only for recreation and tourism, but for medical appointments, freight, and other business.

“Our goal is always to get the road open as quickly and safely as we can. Those two things go hand in hand,” Loebsack continued. “In some cases, like on SR 20 right now, the IMT in coordination with WSDOT has determined that due to fire activity, falling rock and debris and fire mitigation, the road has needed to remain closed.”

But, as it stands, Bradshaw said the business he started some 40 years ago is hurting from these closures.

“I would say our business has been cut in at least half,” he said.

The people who live in this part of Washington are used to road closures, but they’re usually in the winter. Every year, WSDOT shuts down the North Cascades Highway because the heavy snowfall makes it very difficult to keep open.

Stores like Pardners count on busy summers to make up for the lost revenue when the snows begin.

“When you get that lifeline cut off that you depend on to make it through the winter, it’s very painful,” Bradshaw said.

More on road closures: Multi-car collision causes heavy delays on I-5 near Shoreline

The Winthrop business community said fire managers and WSDOT have not been communicative about when they might see Hwy 20 reopen.

Bradshaw said that’s unusual and that “usually, when (the fire) is more local, they seem more concerned, and they hold meetings and kind of hold your hand, and we’ve heard nothing.”

Marc LeDuc manages The Mazama Store, just off SR 20, about 13 miles from Winthrop.

His store specializes in gas, groceries, gifts, and baked goods, but just like Pardners, The Mazama Store has seen a sharp decline in revenue.

LeDuc measures his losses in terms of gallons of gasoline they’ve sold since the road closure was expanded:

“Once that pass closed, we were down from up to a thousand or two thousand gallons of gas a day. Now we’re down to a hundred or even fifty,” LeDuc said.

And even if the roadway were to reopen soon, LeDuc said wildfire smoke could still keep the tourists away.

More from Lisa Brooks: Where to find cooling centers around Washington, heat wave forecasted

“Both fires are quite a ways from us,” LeDuc said. “Personally, we feel pretty safe. But, I think smoke’s going to be an issue for us for, I’d say, at least three weeks.”

We’ve reached out to WSDOT to get their take on the extended closure of the North Cascades Highway. We’ll let you know what they have to say when they respond.

The fire danger will be elevated this week due to the ongoing drought conditions, high temperatures, low relative humidity, and light offshore winds. A heat advisory will replace the warning at 11 p.m. on Wednesday.

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Fire closure of North Cascades Highway is hurting local businesses