Smoke and fire have done to Winthrop what the pandemic couldn’t: clear the streets of the tiny, tourism-dependent town in Okanogan County that’s long been a lure for outdoor enthusiasts.
“This is a season ender,” Mayor Sally Ranzau said. “The smoke is terrible. The fire is worse.”
Throughout the long months of the pandemic, the town saw a steady stream of visitors. People seeking socially distanced recreation and a reprieve from their homes would escape to the Methow Valley to hike, bike, raft and ski.
Restaurants had it rough, but many other businesses had a pretty good year, said Ranzau.
Longtime resident Roxie Miller has lived through many wildfire seasons. She feels a particular burden from the fires this year.
“Our town is very quiet. People are discouraged and anxious and worried about their friends. And of course, the smoke is a big problem,” Miller said.
“But everybody is taking care of their neighbors,” she said. “We’re all grateful there are so many people fighting the fire and it’s not worse than it is.”
Cathy Neupert, an information clerk at the Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center, said she’s used to seeing 40 to 80 people on a normal summer day. On Saturday, there were none.
“As you can imagine, there are very, very few tourists right now, though we’re getting a lot of calls asking about air quality,” she said.
“Highway 20 is closed, Chewuch Road is closed, and the things people come here to do are closed,” Ranzau said. “This has a terrible impact on business.”
Tate Johnston, who owns Sheri’s Sweet Shoppe with her husband, Kyle, said the couple’s business survived the pandemic because Winthrop “can be a very magical place.”
Summer had been looking fantastic for the whole town, she said, before fire closed Highway 20 and the state shut down all public access to Department of Natural Resources lands east of the Cascades due to fire danger.
“It’s cut down on the traffic dramatically. It’s mostly firefighters and locals now,” Johnston said.
Amy Gard, a bartender and server at Three Fingered Jack’s Saloon, said everyone had been excited and gracious and happy to be out and about post-lockdown, but the smoke and fire “brought everything to a screeching halt.”
Seth Miles, owner of Three Fingered Jack’s, said he was feeling both grateful for fire crews as well as a little bit useless watching others work to save the valley. He and the owners of the Old Schoolhouse Brewery and East 20 Pizza have been feeding firefighters and displaced residents, offering discounts and free meals.
On Sunday, they fed more than 200 firefighters, he said. “It feels good to be part of a nice effort from the community.”
The Cedar Creek and Cub Creek 2 fires started on July 8 and July 16, respectively. The two fires have together burned more than 87,000 acres, a total area more than 1.5 times as large as Seattle’s 53,620 acre land mass.
Last week, Level 3 evacuations were issued for the Sun Mountain Lodge and the surrounding area, as the Cedar Creek Fire began to crest Virginia Ridge. Last Thursday, the lodge announced that all staff and guests had been evacuated and that the lodge would be closed until further notice.
Michael Davis is a member of the Type 1 federal team overseeing the Cedar Creek fire. There are only 16 Type 1 federal teams nationwide.
According to Davis, the Cedar Creek blaze is now within a quarter mile of the lodge. Seven strike teams of five fire engines apiece are focused entirely on protecting the lodge and other nearby buildings, clearing brush in challenging terrain.
Davis said the main fire is in an area that hasn’t seen fire in 50 to 100 years, so there is plenty of fuel.
“We know how much that facility means to the community and are taking this very, very seriously,” he said.
Ahead of the Cub Creek fire, crews are swathing the historic North Twentymile Fire Lookout in foil-like protective wrap, fire officials said.
Fire danger could be exacerbated over the weekend with record-breaking temperatures in the forecast, according to Gary Koch, meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Spokane.
“We’re looking at widespread triple-digit temperatures for Central and Eastern Washington,” he said. On Friday and Saturday in Wenatchee, highs of about 105 degrees are expected, he said, which would tie the record there.
With the high pressure system and lighter winds, there’s a good chance smoke will continue to build up east of the Cascades and just sit there, he said.
But even favorable weather might not help at this stage, Ranzau said.
From Winthrop’s long experience with wildfires, she’s learned that sometimes the only cure for a fire this size is snow. The first real chance for that is in August, but more likely it will come in October.
Still, she has hope. “We are resilient and we have been learning to be more resilient,” she said. “Winthrop will still be here after the fires.”
The Seattle Times is tracking locations of wildfires across the Pacific Northwest. Visit seattletimes.com to use the interactive map, which will be updated throughout the fire season.