WINTHROP, Wash. – Gov. Jay Inslee flew to the Methow Valley to talk with local officials about recovering from last week’s fires that are slowly being contained in Central Washington.
Instead, he and other state officials spent part of their visit Friday afternoon talking about efforts to fight a new fire.
As Inslee’s small turboprop plane touched down at the Methow Valley airport, a new wind-whipped blaze, started by sparks from the rim of a flattened trailer tire dragged along a road, was torching the hillside above the staging area for the region’s fire-fighting helicopters.
By late afternoon, it had torched an estimated 1,500 acres and destroyed as many as five homes. A steady succession of helicopters pulled buckets of water out of the nearby Methow River, and a pair of tanker planes joined in to beat back the flames in a choreographed air battle against the flames. Residents of Twin Lakes, a development of more than 30 homes in the fire’s path, were told to evacuate.
“We planned to talk about recovery, instead we’re talking about a new fire,” Inslee said. “It’s an indication of how volatile all of Central Washington is.”
The fire moved toward Winthrop about two miles away, and the town was under an evacuation warning as Inslee, National Guard Adjutant Gen. Bret Daugherty and others met with Mayor Sue Langdalen in the town hall. Langdalen said she’d lived in the area for 35 years and never been worried about fires. Until this summer.
“This to me is very scary, the way it keeps blowing up, and the movement of it,” Langdalen said before showing Inslee an aerial photo of the area where the newest fire was burning.
Winthrop spent nine days without power, and while the fire hasn’t touched the Old West-themed town, it is putting a major crimp in the tourist season on which the town relies for a major portion of its yearly revenue. Generators were trucked in to supply power to the town hall and some other buildings and provide some juice for the annual rhythm and blues festival.
“Up until a half an hour ago we were looking down the road to getting up and running again,” Langdalen said.
The state should consider stockpiling generator capacity to provide backups in emergencies, Inslee said. It also can work with Winthrop, Twisp and the other towns in the valley on an advertising camping to help lure people back to the area.
A similar campaign was successful for Mount Vernon and nearby communities after an accident knocked an Interstate 5 bridge into the Skagit River, he said. Another campaign is underway now in the area hard hit by the Oso mudslide.
“We’ll probably have to wait until these fires calm down,” Inslee said.
In Twisp, Inslee met with Mayor Soo Ing-Moody, who explained how communities in the valley pulled together to weather the fires. She said she is supportive of any help from the state to draw tourists back.
“I’m very proud of this valley,” Ing-Moody said. “I do look at this as possibly being a success story.”
A federal disaster designation that will help with the more than 300 homes lost in the Carlton Complex fire – the largest in state history – must wait for a full accounting of what was damaged or destroyed, and Friday’s fire would have to be part of a separate request, the state’s Emergency Management Director Robert Ezelle said.
Okanogan Public Utility District transmission lines were destroyed in the fire. The district hopes to use a route along U.S. Highway 97 because it will be quicker to rebuild there than along the old route, Dan Boettger, a PUD official said.
Let the state know if there’s any problem getting the paperwork done for putting in the lines, Inslee said: “We are very aggressive on permitting high-priority projects in the state.”
Daugherty said he had trained guardsmen that could be called up to help with firefighting and security if local officials needed them.
By early evening, Inslee and other state officials were back at the Methow Valley airport, where the fire was being contained by constant dousing from the helicopters, although not before it consumed several homes and other buildings on the ridge above the runways. Winthrop was spared evacuation. But other evacuations were put in place, including for Sun Mountain Resort near Winthrop and Pearrygin Lake State Park, which will be closed through the weekend.
Inslee has been warning about the affects of climate change, and the prospects of warmer, drier summers and the prospect of bad fire seasons in the years to come. But those are abstract academic exercises, he said. Friday’s fire was a personal example of what can happen because the fast-moving blaze at one point was racing toward the farm of state Agriculture Director Bud Hover, who was on the plane with him.
As the plane took off, Ezelle noticed the start of another fire on another ridge, and Inslee pointed out a possible thunderhead moving in from the horizon, a potential source of lightning that could start more fires.
“I think we’re in for a long, hot summer,” Daugherty said.