Norse Peak Fire Recap
On August 11th, a lightning strike in the Norse Peak Wilderness started a small forest fire. The wildfire slowly grew over the next couple of weeks, heading east toward Highway 410 and the Bumping Lake area. Ultimately, Highway 410 was closed on the east side of the Cascade Crest, from Chinook Pass toward Yakima. The resources to manage the fire were based on the east side of the pass.
Throughout Labor Day weekend, the fire grew in size, but its movements were largely obscured by the huge amounts of smoke created. The winds shifted to a “Chinook Wind”, blowing from the east, and pushed the fire toward Crystal Mountain and the west side. This phenomenon, though rare, does occur from time to time, usually in late summer. The Yacolt Burn in 1902 was the most noteworthy example.
On Labor Day, the fire was on the ridge behind Gold Hills up at Crystal Mountain and was looking quite large. The small Greenwater Fire Department crew that was monitoring movement in the fire withdrew from the area, fearing being cutoff by the fire if it came down the hill to Crystal base. The night webcam images from Crystal showed many fire spots coming over the ridge; my assumption was that Gold Hills would likely be lost.
During the night, however, the fire stayed on the ridge, and raced down the valley toward the cabins. At 4am on Tuesday September 5th, Alta Crystal Resort and the cabin community were told to evacuate, the fire was close behind. Many cabin owners raced up to retrieve possessions and to set up rudimentary fire defenses like sprinklers. The Greenwater FD volunteer crew continued to monitor and protect the Gold Hills community, and started to monitor the situation behind the cabins as well.
On Wednesday September 6th, the cabin area was very hot and smoky. The Greenwater FD was spraying many cabins with foamy water with fire retardant, and it really felt like the fire was imminent. That evening, at the first community fire briefing in Greenwater, there was a lot of frustration about lack of resources and lack of attention to this fire (as compared to the Jolly Mountain fire near Cle Elum and Suncadia). The fire management team from Florida had been primarily focusing on the fire on the east side, near Bumping Lake Road, and seemed to be caught a bit flat footed by the rapid shift in the fire to the west.
Luckily, the fire lost some steam as it came down the valley, and morphed into a slow-burning ground fire. If it had been a faster, hotter fire in the canopies of the trees, there is little that could’ve been done to save the cabins with the few resources that were available at that time.
At the urging of the WRRA board, cabin owners starting calling and emailing elected officials, pleading for more resources and help. Chief Sowers went to the fire command office in Eastern Washington, and pleaded for the same. The next day, wildland firefighters started rolling in to the area, and the National Guard soon followed, to provide security at road closures and protect resources and property.
The wildland firefighters created fire lines and fire breaks above all the cabin tracts by digging a path through the forest underbrush, and set up hose lines and sprinklers around the most at-risk cabins, plus put pumps in the creeks to draw water. They also removed brush from around all roads and trails, to help create natural fire breaks, and ultimately dug a small fire line around each and every cabin and outbuilding and pump house in all of the cabin tracts. It was a huge amount of work!
Meanwhile, some cabin owners purchased and installed protective wrap on their cabin exteriors and wood shake roofs, in order to protect against embers. Others contacted insurance companies, and some of those provided proactive protective services (from Wildfire Defense Systems) including sprinklers and localized fire breaks. As the smoke cleared, we even got some helicopter support, dropping huge amounts of water on some of the hottest parts of the fire, and refilling from a large tub up at Crystal Mountain, or from the White River. Gradually, things began to feel more stable and controlled.
Since that time, the fire has continued to slowly percolate along the ground, directed around the cabins by the fire lines, and has come all the way to Highway 410 just downhill from the Dry Creek (Deep Creek) cabins. The fire crews continue to monitor and manage the fire, but will not be able to extinguish it until we get a lot of help from nature in the form of heavy rain or snow. As long as conditions don’t change much, it appears the fire is well managed and posing little threat, so the evacuation orders have been lifted throughout the area.
Most of the roads and trails in the area are closed, and will remain closed until next spring. The fire burned through large parts of the Norse Peak Wilderness, including the popular Corral Pass and Noble Knob areas, and consumed structures there (outhouses, horse ties, the shelter at Ranger Creek, wooden signs and posts, etc). It also came down to, and in some cases across, trails close to the cabins, including Goat Falls and the White River Trail. It will take some time to restore these, but in the short term the real concern is around trees, whose roots have been damaged by the ground fire, toppling over. The entire area behind our cabins is unstable and should be considered off limits to recreation.
As the immediate danger to our cabins has decreased, we have started to turn our attention to the future, what we can learn from this experience, and how to be better prepared next time. There have been suggestions to maintain the fire lines now that we have them, to purchase our own firefighting equipment including hoses and pumps to store in the tracts, and to have a better plan to contact and mobilize community and political leaders in the future.
Although another fire seems unlikely any time soon, the weather does appear to be changing and we are experiencing warmer and drier summers – so it behooves us to be proactive. We will be forming a wildfire task force in the near future to discuss and will pursue actions accordingly; please reach out to the WRRA board if you would like to help.
These four reports describe the analysis prepared after the wildfire and the associated impacts to the WRRA region:
The USFS issued a closure order for the area that includes the White River Recreation tracts and local trails and roads.