We take to the road for a look at Chelan, Twisp and Winthrop.
Everyone heard about Central Washington’s devastating August wildfires, in which hundreds of thousands of acres burned and many communities were evacuated. Some folks assume the whole region should be avoided. I took a road trip to find out.
The news: A few remote areas still smolder, but flames are gone and air is clear. Many locals believe an influx of tourist dollars is the first, best fix for the region. And, with brilliant autumn leaves and crisp days, fall can be the best time to visit.
Chelan fire paints a new landscape
From the mouths of babes …
If you go
Visiting the fire zones
Area wineries welcome visitors during Lake Chelan Crush Festival, the first and second weekends of October, with crush demonstrations, grape tasting, live music, tours, special foods and more. See lakechelan.com and click on “Events.”
Phoenix Festival: Music, fire dancing, juggling, “interactive art,” local food and beverages, $5-$25, Saturday, Oct. 3, at TwispWorks campus, 502 S. Glover St.
The Merc Playhouse stages “The Diabolical Elixir, or Choose Your Poison,” described as a “live radio-show/Gothic melodrama mash-up;” $5-$15, Oct. 23-31, 101 S. Glover St.; mercplayhouse.org
• For fall lodging specials at Lake Chelan, see lakechelan.com and click on “Special Offers.”
• For lodging specials in the Methow Valley, see centralreservations.net/info/current_specials.
• Stormy Mountain Brewing, the first craft brewery in the town of Chelan, planned to open the day the fires started. It finally opened Labor Day weekend. Nine Northwest beers and one cider on tap, including their own Leeward Extra Pale Ale and Slide Ridge Copper Cream. Menu of barbecue, wraps and tacos ($9.50-$13) with six house-made salsas and sauces. 133 E. Woodin Ave.; facebook.com/stormymountainbrewery
• Siren Song Wines opened a new tasting room in July at 635 S. Lakeshore Road, Chelan. It serves food and aims to be an event venue. sirensongwines.com
• Rootwood Cider opened this summer at 45 Wapato Way in Manson, rootwoodcider.com.
• Radiance Winery recently opened a tasting room at 546 Klate Road, Manson; radiancewinery.com
• Lake Chelan Chamber of Commerce last April opened a new Lake Chelan Visitor Center, 216 E. Woodin Ave., with interactive educational exhibits, a cozy couch in front of a gas fire, and positively ritzy public restrooms. lakechelan.com/2015/04/new-visitor-center-grand-opening/
Lacey Lybecker, who with her husband owns Chelan’s Cairdeas Winery, clearly recalls when the fire started. Around 5 in the morning of Aug. 14, their 3-year-old, Eugene, snuggled into bed with his parents a few minutes before the big lightning storm hit.
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Then came what one local describes as “the longest, loudest clap of thunder I ever heard in my life.”
“Uh, oh, that’s no good,” proclaimed little Eugene.
No truer words were ever spoken, as far as this lakefront resort town was concerned.
Lightning set afire drought-crisped trees atop 3,835-foot Chelan Butte, a natural landmark crouching behind town like a silent cougar — one ready to show its menace. The butte separates the 50-mile-long lake, and the town, from the Columbia River.
Usually, this time of year, the butte’s dry grasses make it the same tawny color as a cougar. Now, as you look south from Chelan’s main drag, one sprawling, blackened mountain stretches from lake to river. Wildfires spreading from the butte and elsewhere on the lake crippled this community with days of panic, sirens, choking smoke, and power outages.
The fire came into the industrial quarter of town, destroying a multimillion-dollar apple warehouse — a building with concrete walls — along with the small Ventimiglia Cellars winery and other businesses. Up to 75 homes burned, including many treasured lakefront retreats near Lake Chelan State Park.
Lybecker, who also works for the Lake Chelan Chamber of Commerce, won’t forget that day. “That morning we could see a little fire on top of the butte, but by 1 or 2 in the afternoon, the winds picked up and fire just came barreling down the hill.”
The char zone you’ll see now comes down to the western edge of Chelan’s residential district, and just beyond the fences of Slidewaters water park. Along Highway 97A, the main artery into town, metal guard rails sag on the ground where wooden supports burned. It’s evident that much of this town — where generations of Washingtonians have come to play in the sun, celebrate family reunions, honeymoon with new spouses — could have gone up in smoke.
Karen Wade, co-owner of Fielding Hills Winery, which opened in 2014 on the southwest shore of Lake Chelan, said winery visitors got a clear view of the firefight.
“The helicopters were doing dips in the lake, and the planes were scooping up water every 4½ minutes, again and again. It was kind of morbid, but people sat here and watched, and it was fascinating.”
Power outages closed businesses, and tourists stayed away because of smoke.
By Labor Day weekend, wineries were once again rocking and rolling with visitors, said Lybecker. But even in recent days the town’s visitor center — a fancy, new downtown showcase with interactive exhibits, worth a look — was still getting questions of “can I come? Is it safe?”
Yes, you can come — and most places are safe. State parks reopened weeks ago. The road to the top of Chelan Butte is open again for hang gliders and hikers, though much of the landscape looks like burnt toast (and beware of damaged trees that could fall).
The good news: From many vantage points along the lake, you don’t see the burn zone unless you crane your neck.
An unexpected offshoot of the drama for Karen Wade was the community bonding. Firefighters on their way to and from a fire near Lake Chelan State Park passed her door every day. Wade decided to raise money at her winery to help feed them.
For days on end, she joined neighbors and restaurant owners who pitched in to provide everything from roasted chicken to pulled pork at the Lake Chelan Yacht Club, near the burn zone, to 140 exhausted firefighters who would come in with blackened faces. The memory brings tears to her eyes.
“It was a tragedy, all the people who lost houses and everything, but the connections we made — we now know people here on the south shore we never knew before,” Wade said. “And the last day, we all got our pictures taken with a firetruck.”
Twisp rises from emotional ashes
Some say the name “Twisp” comes from a Native American word meaning “yellow jacket” — it was even the old high school’s mascot. And like that insect with a stinger, this town is tough to beat back.
But Twisp has taken a licking after being so close to record-setting wildfires two summers in a row, especially after three young firefighters died Aug. 19, only about 6 miles from town, up Twisp River Road.
One of those three, 20-year-old Tom Zbyszewski (“be-SHEF-ski”), grew up in Carlton, just down the highway. He graduated from nearby Liberty Bell High and had been a lifeguard at the Twisp pool. He was a much-loved kid around town. His death has left a big hole.
“We all knew Tommy. Our kids were on the swim team together. They all took tae kwon do,” said one Methow Valley local, Shannon Skibeness, after finishing her lunch at the Cinnamon Twisp Bakery recently. “I just have to put Tommy in his own special place and put him aside. I just can’t think about him.”
It’s been tough for Twisp, which with its population of 940 is the Methow Valley’s “big city.” What’s the mood? Katie Bristol, owner of the Cinnamon Twisp, pondered that.
“You know, I think anytime something like a wildfire happens that’s so out of your control — it’s humbling,” said Bristol, who kept her bakery open even through the fire’s worst days because locals needed a comfort zone where they could gather.
After a long pause in thought, she continued: “There’s an overall sorrow at the losses. But we have a strong community — a compassionate community.”
That’s affirmed two doors down at The Cove food bank, which was extra busy in September. When fires closed the valley’s hotels and restaurants, employees such as housekeepers and dishwashers lost income. For some that meant they couldn’t make the rent, said Glenn Schmekel, The Cove’s founder and director.
“People living on the edge, I call them,” said Schmekel, whose front room bustled on a recent day with 70 families coming in to pack food bags and try on used clothing.
As its ace in the hole, Twisp has what he calls “a huge community of nonprofits,” with people active in the arts and education. The theater is back up and running, the farmers market is going strong (Saturdays, 9 a.m.-noon, through October), and festivals are happening.
“We’re in recovery,” Schmekel said.
Uncharred Winthrop wants you
Diane Childs, co-owner of Winthrop Mountain Sports, shook her head.
“We had some people in yesterday who said they thought, ‘We should wait (before visiting the Methow Valley), we shouldn’t clog the roads for emergency vehicles,’ ” Childs said recently. “I say, ‘The roads are empty, come on over!’ ”
The rush of emergency vehicles pretty much ended before Labor Day, and though Winthrop was evacuated, wildfires were contained miles from town. The only charring most visitors will see, if they come via the North Cascades Highway, will be near Newhalem, on the western slopes of the Cascades.
How close did the fires get? A Forest Service map shows the nearest burn line was 4.25 miles southwest of Winthrop’s main downtown intersection.
OK, that was too close for comfort in August when winds were howling and fire was moving like a semitruck with no brakes. But to give some perspective: 4.25 miles is the same distance as from Seattle’s Pike Place Market to Mercer Island. And between Winthrop and the burn area, some big hills block the view.
How’s morale in town, after two record-breaking fire seasons in a row, with many saying this is the new normal?
“We’re a tough bunch up here. Everybody’s gung-ho; we’re still going,” Winthrop Mayor Sue Langdalen said, with a set to her jaw.
“In the valley, we stand behind each other,” said Steve Mitchell, proprietor of the town’s Rocking Horse Bakery, noting that his September business matched last year’s. “Now we’re just waiting for snow” — the next lure to money-spending tourists.
Nonetheless, the triple whammy of heat, wind and fire took its toll on locals.
“I’ve never been scared up here,” said Langdalen, who moved to Winthrop 35 years ago from Seattle. “But this year I felt threatened.”
For the recreation-minded, there’s something to celebrate: Fire didn’t damage the 120-mile Methow Trails system of skiing and hiking paths.
Locals might have wanted to hug a couple I met on one of those trails, up Patterson Mountain, south of Winthrop. Bill and Norma Miers, visiting from Bellingham, told me they had almost gone elsewhere for a getaway trip.
“We thought we’d go to the Oregon Coast, but then we realized these folks need the support,” Bill Miers said. “If you buy a T-shirt here or just sit and have lunch, you’re helping out.”