GeneralNewsAfter Summer Wildfires, Methow Valley United, Undeterred and Open for Business

Avatar Jeremy BlazarNovember 20, 2015
The Okanogan Complex Fire near Omak, Wash., began with a lightning strike on Aug. 15, 2015 and consumed more than 300,000 acres. (Photo: US Forest Service)
The Okanogan Complex Fire near Omak, Wash., began with a lightning strike on Aug. 15, 2015 and consumed more than 300,000 acres. (Photo: US Forest Service)

In late October, snow fell on Washington Pass just outside the Methow Valley in Washington state’s North Cascades. Just yesterday, grooming began on the Methow Trails in anticipation of the earliest opening in the nordic center’s history, set for this Saturday. This kind of start to the season is warmly welcomed by a community that endured two consecutive summers of record-setting wildfires.

A skiing mecca and home to four 2014 Olympic cross-country skiers (the Bjornsen siblings, Brian Gregg, and Torin Koos), the Methow Valley is also home to the Methow Trails, the self-proclaimed “nation’s largest cross-country ski area.” With more than 200 kilometers of trails in Winthrop and Mazama, Wash., this recreational area attracts visitors from around the country for skiing, trail running, mountain biking, and hiking.

This past August, lightning strikes ignited what was named the Okanogan Complex Fire, an immense fire that grew to threaten homes, businesses and livelihoods. Actually five fires fought as a single fire due to their proximity to one another, the Okanogan Complex surpassed the previous year’s Carlton Complex Fire to become Washington’s largest wildfire on record. Peaking at 304,782 acres, the fires burned from Aug. 14 through the declaration of 95-percent containment on Sept. 20, according to the National Incident Information System.

A map of the Okanogan Complex Fire (Photo: Jeremy Blazar/Overlays by InciWeb)
A map of the Okanogan Complex Fire (Photo: Jeremy Blazar/Overlays by InciWeb)

Starting just down the valley from the ski towns of Winthrop and Mazama, the Twisp River Fire posed the highest threat to the ski infrastructure of the Methow Trails and Sun Mountain Lodge.

Roughly thirty miles to the east, the Beaver Lake, Lime Belt, Tunk Block, and Tuna Block fires combined to create a much larger blaze, forcing evacuations of about 5,400 homes in Okanogan County.

It was this evacuation that drew the attention of U.S. Ski Team athletes Erik and Sadie Bjornsen, who call the Methow Valley their home despite living and training in Anchorage, Alaska. Their parents still live in the valley.

“For Eric and I it was a bit a scary because we didn’t hear from our parents right away,” Sadie Bjornsen said in a phone interview. Once they made contact with their parents, they learned they had evacuated to Seattle.

Bjornsen also mentioned that aside from the size and unpredictability of the last two fires, it had been the idea of getting trapped that Methow residents feared the most.

“The really freaky thing that happened this summer was that there was a fire over the North Cascade Highway … and there was a fire down in Twisp, and then there was a fire in Omak,” she said. “So all three ways of getting out of the valley were potentially blocked.”

None of these closures coincided for a total road blockage; however, the valley’s entrapment by fire was a conceivable reality.

This was more of an issue the previous summer when heavy rains created flooding and mudslides in addition to the ongoing fires. From the experience with the Carlton Complex in July 2014, the valley as a whole learned and was “a little better prepared for evacuation and the infrastructure issues,” Mark Waechter, longtime resident and owner of the Winthrop-based ski shop, Nordic Ultratune, wrote in an email.

Waechter, who wrote about the fires on his blog in August, didn’t feel the affects of the fires on his business due to the shop’s exclusively winter focus and high volume of mailed-in, ski-grinding work.

While the Winthrop and Mazama townships that many skiers call home were not immediately affected, the blazes quickly captured national attention when three firefighters died on Aug. 19 and four others were injured. These deaths, especially overwhelming for a small community where just about everyone knew or had a connections to one of the deceased, also drew enough regional media attention to spread an exaggerated sense of devastation throughout the valley, potentially dissuading tourists.

The first grooming pass of the season took place Wednesday at the Methow Trails. The 200-plus-kilometer trail system is on track for the earliest opening ever on Saturday. (Photo: Methow Trails/Facebook)
The first grooming pass of the season took place Wednesday at the Methow Trails. The 200-plus-kilometer trail system is on track for the earliest opening ever on Saturday. (Photo: Methow Trails/Facebook)

“The hardest part about the recovery is convincing people to come visit after the smoke and fire went away,” Methow Trails Executive Director James DeSalvo wrote in an email. “Within a few weeks after this fire took off, the valley was open for business, but our marketing engine can’t compete with national disaster news.”

All of the skiers and members of the ski community interviewed for this article echoed that sentiment, including Methow Olympic Development (MOD) Squad Head Coach Scott Johnston.

“If you came here and you drove just up the Methow Valley on the main road, you’d hardly see any damage other than some burned, blackened hillsides,” Johnston said.

Methow Valley Nordic Team coach Leslie Hall expressed sorrow for the loss of life and property, but explained that her team, “never really missed a beat even with smoke and fire.”

“The hardest part about the recovery is convincing people to come visit after the smoke and fire went away.” — Methow Trails Executive Director James DeSalvo

Training deviated from the planned schedule only when smoke levels hit unhealthy levels. Hall, Johnston and former MOD athlete, Sam Naney, who now runs Momentum Northwest in Seattle, all mentioned the smoke as a training inhibitor, but explained it was easily avoidable by adjusting to the wind and elevation. Bjornsen said her parents still got outside with the use of breathing masks, and she only missed one interval session because of smoke during the week she visited after the fires.

Methow Valley Nordic Team skiers Ella Hall and Claire Waichler rollerski amidst the smoke on closed Highway 20 this summer. (Photo: Leslie Hall)
Methow Valley Nordic Team skiers Ella Hall and Claire Waichler rollerski amidst the smoke on closed Highway 20 this summer. (Photo: Leslie Hall)

From an economic perspective, many agreed that it was imperative for early snow in order to draw tourists back to the Methow. Despite the fires and forest closures, DeSalvo’s staff at Methow Trails has done all of their normal preparation in readying the trails for the winter. On Saturday, they’ll open earlier than ever, right in the nick of time, according to a grooming report.

To understand the nordic center’s role in the economic recovery of the region, one might consider its return on investment. According to the Methow Trails’ economic analysis published in August, it creates 152 full-time jobs each year, and has accounted for $700,000 dollars in sales tax revenue and $12.4 million dollars in combined direct and secondary expenditures made by trail users. Also, for every dollar spent on trail maintenance, $23 is returned to the local economy.

Not only do the trails serve the community’s transportation and recreational needs, they are aiding in economic recuperation. Now they just need the snow to cooperate this winter.

Winter on the Methow Trails. (Courtesy photo)
Winter on the Methow Trails. (Courtesy photo)

Looking toward the future, it’s easy to predict more fires as the snowpack and weather becomes more unreliable, and each year seems to be drier than the previous. Wildfires are natural and essential to the ecosystem; thus this will happen again. However, it’s the severity and relentless nature of these past fires that’s scared the community.

Naney, who grew up in the valley and lived there until this past year, mentioned that this year’s fires were “essentially burning over areas that burnt last year,” making the entire event “… horrifying for people.”

On the other hand, the community, and the skiers within it, know that preparation is key. Part of this is trail advocacy and promotion since, “the last three major wildfires in our area have all been redirected away from homes and towns due in some part to the trail network acting as a fire line,” according to DeSalvo.

Part of it is simply working around what the fire destroyed. The Methow Nordic Team did so by offering free membership to those team members whose families lost property.

As the snow falls, skiing and tourists will return to the valley, and life as usual will continue for all of Okanogan County.

“Our official opening will be this Saturday and forecast is for sunny and cold for the foreseeable future,” DeSalvo wrote in an email. “Good news for everyone.”

— Lance Webster contributed reporting

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Jeremy Blazar

New to the FasterSkier team, Jeremy has been involved in many facets of the ski community since he began ditching middle school to go skiing. When not daydreaming of the Birkie, he finds time to explore the fishing and trail-running opportunities of his new home, Seattle, Wash.

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