TWISP, Wash. — Ranchers and residents of the upper Methow Valley were just beginning to recover from the largest wildfire in state history when lightning ignited a new blaze that sent many of them scrambling again during the weekend.
The Rising Eagle Road Fire started the afternoon of Aug. 1 about a half mile from an interagency firefighting camp at Liberty Bell High School just south of Winthrop. The fire destroyed about a dozen structures, including six to eight homes, and caused numerous evacuations. It closed Highway 20 between Twisp and Winthrop for a while but was mostly contained in a couple of days.
Meanwhile, the Carlton Complex Fire, which started from lightning July 14 near Carlton and Twisp, was 90 percent contained on Aug. 5 with full containment projected for Aug. 15. It had rapidly spread down the valley on July 17 to Pateros and Brewster, destroying about 300 homes and 1,000 cattle in its path. It burned 255,000 acres, much of it rangeland, and an estimated several hundred acres of tree fruit orchards. It left more than 7,000 customers without power for 10 days.
An accurate number of cattle that perished may never be known but it’s probably more than 1,000 head, worth about $1.5 million, said Craig T. Nelson, manager of Okanogan Conservation District. A bred cow is worth about $2,000 and calves are worth $600 to $1,200.
Carcasses were numerous in the Chiliwist north of Brewster where cattle fled the fire down from rangeland to the west only to be trapped by fences at smaller ranches, Nelson said. Dead cattle were identified by ear tags and brands and buried.
Cass Gebbers, president and CEO of Gebbers Farms, Brewster, one of the state’s largest tree fruit and cattle companies, said millions of board feet of timber also burned.
“Entire forests are gone, burned like a moonscape to nothing but sticks,” Gebbers said.
Some burned trees may be salvageable and “an onslaught” of burned wood likely will be available, he said.
“Entire ecosystems are disrupted. Huge, green sponges for carbon absorption just torched,” Gebbers said. “There is no doubt that a new diverse environment will develop in the aftermath of these fire but the beautiful forested valleys and ridges of the lower Methow and Okanogan, that we have all become accustom to, are gone in most areas.”
He estimated “a few hundred acres of tree fruit orchards” are damaged as fire singed their edges and, in places, burned several rows deep.
Gebbers said 232 of his cattle died and 55 are missing.
“It literally tears at your heart to see such carnage. These are cattle that you know from years of caring for them. Some of the best bulls and genetics, just gone,” he said.
Vic Stokes’ ranch lost 107 cattle, had 125 missing and was treating 25 injured cattle. Some 150 head were healthy. Stokes and other ranches were into second-cutting of much-need alfalfa on Aug. 1.
Portions of Stokes’ and Gebbers’ ranges were in a narrow swath where the fire moved “at incredible speed from the Methow to Chiliwist,” Gebbers said. “There was simply no chance to move those cattle around.
“We had ridden day and night moving hundreds of cattle, which were located in difficult and steep terrain in the Methow Valley, out of harm’s way only to be blind-sided by the Chiliwist fire, which wasn’t even on the radar,” Gebbers said. “Those were supposed to be the safe cattle.”
Over 24 hours, from July 17 to 18, the fire grew 160,000 acres, which is nearly two acres per second, Nelson said.
Craig Boesel, 68, whose great-grandfather homesteaded in Bear Creek in 1889, said a fire actually started on his 55,000-acre U.S. Forest Service grazing allotment but “didn’t get to boiling until it got to Stokes’ and Gebbers’ allotments.” He said 75 percent of his allotment burned but that he wasn’t hit as hard as Stokes and Gebbers.
“I haven’t found any dead cows and I’m not sure if I lost any,” Boesel said. “We won’t know full losses until roundup at the end of September or early October.”
He said the USFS gave him permission on July 31 to return his cattle to an unburned 15,000-acre allotment only to rescind it on Aug. 1 because of increased fire danger.
Gebbers said almost everything is burned between the lower Methow and Okanogan rivers with several ranches burned completely out of pasture.
“This will be a many-year process of rebuilding hundreds of miles of fence, resting and rotating burned pastures (grazing allotments) to allow full and proper recovery while dealing with the lingering stress that some of these cattle have experienced,” he said.
Cattle watering systems from natural springs and wells, some piped for miles to the uplands, have been destroyed or damaged, he said.
Thousands of acres need to be reseeded to keep noxious weeds from taking over, but there may not be private or government money to do that, Gebbers said.
“Some of these pastures (grazing allotments) are burned so intense that the soils are scorched and the root base and seed sources destroyed,” Gebbers said.
Coordinated resource management plans between agencies and landowners have been “completely thrown out of whack” with hay now being used that was intended for winter until pasture can be located and rented elsewhere, he said.
Nelson said ranches are dipping into hay they normally don’t start feeding until October or November. They are geared for feeding hay for five to six months and now are facing nine months or longer, he said. If they can’t find enough suitable pasture, they may have to sell herds to survive and rebuild later which is expensive, he said.
The Washington Department of Natural Resources is allowing ranchers not fully using grazing allotments to share them, Nelson said, noting there’s not nearly enough. Getting permission for USFS allotments isn’t as easy, he said.
Some ranchers are finding Conservation Reserve Program land to graze, Nelson said.
Gebbers said the Farm Bill allows emergency grazing of CRP until Sept. 30 but it would help if it went another month or two.
USDA’s Farm Service Agency has been “very helpful” in trying to match available CRP to displaced ranchers but ranchers typically have to install temporary fences and water that’s an extra cost, he said.
Local relief efforts have been “fantastic,” Gebbers said.
“There has truly been an outpouring of goodwill bestowed on our communities and toward those who have lost so much,” he said. “From hay to diapers there has been overwhelming support, and for that we thank everyone.”