WINTHROP — On a bench outside Winthrop Town Hall sits a basket of N95 masks, free to whoever needs one — not for COVID-19, but for smoke.
Air quality in the small Methow Valley town is among the worst in the country thanks to two nearby fires that combined have burned more than 140 square miles. The cost is an abbreviated summer tourism season that was off to a fast pace for some businesses.
“There’s not a whole lot of business at this time,” said Sally Ranzau, mayor of the western-themed town of less than 300. “The tourism: we’re not encouraging people to come at this time, but as soon as the smoke goes away and the fire is under control, then we’ll be open for business again.”
The Cedar Creek Fire, now less than four miles west of Winthrop, began during a lightning storm July 11. It’s estimated at 36,922 acres, 11% contained and not expected to be fully contained until the end of October.
The Cub Creek 2 Fire, five miles north, has burned 53,277 acres and is 24% contained. It’s expected to be contained Aug. 31. The fire started July 16 but the cause is under investigation.
The Cedar Creek Fire is moving southeast toward Winthrop and Twisp, but the Cub Creek 2 Fire is calm on its western flank near dense populations. Roughly 500 homes near the Cedar Creek Fire are under Level 3 evacuations — leave now — with another 900 to 1,000 under Level 2 — be ready to leave.
Prevailing winds from the northwest have historically pushed fires southeast.
Concerns that the Cedar Creek Fire could merge with the Cub Creek 2 Fire, only seven miles east, have dwindled in recent days due to success on the Cub Creek’s western flank.
“I mean, there’s no absolutes in our business, but we’re feeling pretty comfortable about what the work that they’ve accomplished is going to prevent the Cub 2 fire from coming into Winthrop from the east,” said incident commander Evans Kuo.
Kuo said the biggest complexity of the Cedar Creek Fire is its steep slopes and inaccessible areas, which combined make it difficult and dangerous to insert firefighters.
“We like to find the ground that is best suited for where we have the highest probability of success and as well as the least exposure for our firefighters,” Kuo said. “So if we can pick the right ground at the right time at the right place and have the right people ... we usually have the best success there.”
The focus now is near Sun Mountain Lodge, a popular resort less than a mile from the Cedar Creek Fire, and up Thompson Ridge and to keep the fire out of the Twisp River drainage.
“What we’re trying to do is create a barrier for any further southwest spread of the fire,” Kuo said. He added, “And then ultimately what we want to do is either use some of the old dozer lines from the Little Bridge Creek Fire that get us down into the drainage bottom or we can fall back on (Forest Service Road 4410) in this area.”
Sun Mountain Lodge has closed its doors to visitors after setting occupancy records in recent months and prepared for the worst.
“2021 looked like it was going to be the best all time until the Cedar Creek and Cub Creek 2 fires changed everything, once again,” said Eric Christenson, director of sales and marketing at the Sun Mountain Lodge.
Maintenance staff cleared vegetation and potential fire fuels away from buildings, laid hoses to protect buildings, and checked waterline access points between the lodge and its water source, Patterson Lake, Christenson said.
“The Cedar Creek Fire has taken a toll not only on Sun Mountain Lodge occupancy, it has really affected our staff,” Christenson said. “Just over a year earlier, COVID-19 depleted the lodge of available staff for a variety of reasons. We have worked hard to rebuild our staff and now this evacuation has forced us to lay them off and we will once again start the process all over again.”
AirNow, the federal government’s air quality monitor, rates the air quality for the entire Methow Valley as either very unhealthy or hazardous. Air in Winthrop and Twisp is considered hazardous and residents are advised to stay indoors.
Hank Konrad, owner of Hank’s Harvest Foods in Twisp for 45 years, said last summer was “too busy,” but business has slowed with the influx of smoke.
“A lot of people come over here because of the coronavirus — because they had summer homes — they packed up and left,” Konrad said. He added, “Our business is good but it’s not like it was.”
Asked how the smoke is affecting day-to-day life in Twisp, Konrad said, “It’s a struggle because people aren’t out and about.”
Business at his store hasn’t gone up or down compared to last year, but he’s concerned about other businesses in town.
“I worry about the rest of us that struggled last year — the motels and stuff — they were just getting on their feet again,” Konrad said.
Outdoor recreation experienced a boom last summer when coronavirus restrictions left few other options available.
“This feels worse than the quarantine, I would say,” Ranzau said. “The quarantine, you can hide from COVID; you can’t hide from air.”
She added, “The tourists are not here not only because of the smoke but also because all of the recreational opportunities are non-existent.”
Despite the smoke and threat of fire, she’s confident the town will push through.
“The businesses that have been here a while, they know the game. They know what’s happening,” Ranzau said. She added, “Some of them are doing temporary layoffs; others are just, you know, shortening hours for employees, but they’ll survive. And so will the town.”
An earlier version of this story misstated the historical prevailing winds in Winthrop.