WINTHROP, Okanogan County — When you drive into this Old West tourist town, you immediately see the effects of a summer of wildfires, and, this past week, news of flash floods.
Not on the beautiful mountain scenery, still there. Not on the gorgeous blue sky, with the smoke pretty much cleared.
But on the pocketbooks of a place dependent on business from out-of-towners.
It is Saturday afternoon in prime vacation time.
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“VACANCY,” “OPEN,” advertise signs on some motels. In previous years, they’d have been booked solid.
Methow Cycle & Sport partner Julie Muyllaert says income dropped 31 percent this July over the same time last year, and hours were cut for three of the five employees.
The Silverline Resort, an RV and tent campground at nearby Pearrygin Lake, says being closed for a week in late July, followed by three weeks of hardly any campers, means “our winter money is gone,” says Kristi Brookshire, who owns the business with her husband, Dan.
She says the campground needs the summer visitors since it is closed from October to April.
More exact figures will be available when, in a month, the county reports sales-tax revenue, said Winthrop Mayor Sue Langdalen.
She doesn’t expect good news. This is a place dependent “totally” on tourism, she said.
Anecdotally, you can hear what Georgia Sanders, who for 14 years has been answering the phones at the town Chamber of Commerce visitors-information line, has to say.
“Cancellations? Oh, my goodness, yes. Winthrop and the whole valley took a hit this summer,” she says.
“We didn’t even have phone service here for 10 days, and we did have a lot of smoke. I don’t blame them for not coming if they had any kind of breathing problems.”
The wildfires within sight of Winthrop scorched a quarter-million acres in what’s called the Carlton complex fire — an area five times the size of Seattle.
The flash flood Thursday near Carlton, about 19 miles south of Winthrop, dumped more than an inch of water in one hour beginning at 6 that evening, according to the National Weather Service.
Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers said Saturday that about 10 homes were damaged by mudflows. One home a mile north of Carlton — where the resident had moved out three weeks ago — was taken off its foundation and ended up as pieces of lumber spread across Highway 153.
The husband and wife living in a house on the other side of that road had a 10-foot wall of water burst through their front door. They escaped uninjured but have lost most of their possessions.
The Weather Service said thunderstorms Sunday may produce flash flooding or mudslides over the North Cascade burn scars.
But residents in the valley were hopeful they’d luck out. On Saturday afternoon, there were blue skies and only a slight breeze to cool off the 77-degree temperature.
Flash floods are the top weather-related killer in the U.S. because they are known to roll boulders, tear out trees and destroy buildings and bridges, says the National Flood Insurance Program.
“Wildfires dramatically change landscape,” says the agency on its website. “Normally, vegetation absorbs rainfall, reducing runoff. However, wildfires leave the ground charred, barren and unable to absorb water, creating conditions ripe for flash flooding and mudflow.”
It takes up to five years before vegetation is restored, the site says.
Kristi Brookshire said that based on phone calls to her campground, it was obvious tourists have been absorbing only part of news reports about the natural disasters.
For example, when flash floods hit the area Thursday night, for a couple days, Highway 20 between Twisp and Okanogan was closed (it’s now open, with motorists on one portion having to follow a “pilot car”). Highway 20 is also the North Cascades Highway that’s a major route for motorists from the west side of the state to the Methow Valley. That part of Highway 20 was always open.
“People thought it was closed,” said Brookshire.
Highway 153, which takes motorists east out of Winthrop and Twisp, had a chunk washed out, where drivers can look down a huge drop-off. The road is closed from Twisp to Carlton indefinitely, said the state’s Department of Transportation. But an alternate route is available that doesn’t take much longer.
Meanwhile, Winthrop keeps trying to let the tourists know, as the website for Methow Cycle & Sport says, “We’re open for business!”
It can be a frustrating battle.
The camera crews show up for the fires and floods. The images and quotes of tragedy bounce around the Internet.
On Saturday, Rich Stahl, who owns the Methow River Lodge & Cabins with his wife, Dolly, said he got a phone call from someone wanting to cancel their Christmas booking “because of the fires.”
What? Somehow a wildfire in the snow?
“People have a picture that’s not true. You can hear the panic in their voice,” said Stahl.
He said his lodge managed to survive because it rented out rooms to helicopter pilots and others fighting the wildfire.
He said they paid a government rate of $83 a night instead of the $125 summer tourist rate, said Stahl.
“But working with these guys was exhilarating. The heart and willpower they showed is one of the No. 1 experiences in my life,” he said.
If all tourists were like Jim Lee, 62, and his wife, Nora Lee, 64, of Independence, Mo. … A flash flood? Big deal.
They’re traveling with their two golden retrievers in a 30-foot RV, towing a Jeep. The family came over the portion of Highway 20 where a pilot car guided them.
“It was a little tight, but we got through,” Jim Lee said.
Said Nora, “Where we come from, we have tornadoes.”
Eating his ice-cream cone at the famous Sheri’s Sweet Shop in the middle of town, Jim added, “We don’t get scared too easily.”