Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Multiple wildfires likely to keep stretch of SR 20 closed until further notice

Update: August 9, 2021

The section of SR 20 between mileposts 165-178 reopened Monday morning at 8 a.m. so there are no current closures of the highway.  However, fire response crews continue to use the highway for staging and work, so currently there is a 35 mph reduced speed and a pilot car moving traffic between mileposts 166 and 172.

Respect traffic control
The pilot car will run during the day Monday and Tuesday while fire fighters are working.  We expect that this will cause delays so if you must use the SR 20 through this section, plan for longer than normal travel times and some slow-going.  Do not pass the pilot car or pull over in that section as this will cause safety hazards to crews and the traveling public.  The pilot car will not be in place once darkness falls, so you if you can adjust your trip times, you may avoid some delays.

Fires are still burning throughout the state – please be safe
Even with the reopening, there are still fires burning throughout the state that may affect travel and conditions can change quickly.  Keep this in mind when preparing for your trip and make sure you have plenty of water, a full tank of gas and have checked our app or travel alert map for the most current information before you head out on a trip.

Remember, secure tow chains, never toss burning materials out of your vehicle (don’t litter at all please!) and don’t pull over into tall grass while traveling to help reduce the risk of starting roadside fires. 

Update: August 3, 2021

Fires and fire response activity in the area means that the SR 20 closure will remain in place at least through this week.  Firefighters have made great strides in the containment of the Cedar Creek and Cub Creek 2 fires, but with hot, dry conditions and low visibility due to smoke, it is not yet safe to fully reopen the road. 

Closed means closed

At the moment, the closure points are between milepost 165 and 179, west of Mazama in the Methow Valley.  However, the east side closure point has changed several times and local evacuation levels have been raised and lowered over the past several days.  Air quality in the area also rates from “unhealthy” to “hazardous”.

We continue to see people who are trying to force their way through a closure sign or who are not prepared for the road closure when they reach the area.  This is a problem the crews working this fire should not have to deal with – we all want them focused on the fire and keeping themselves and nearby residents safe.  There is no local access or Forest Service detours. Cross-state travel is available on US 2 and I-90.

Still opportunities to enjoy the North Cascades

From the west you can still access as far at The Overlook on SR 20, and Diablo Lake and Ross Lake are far enough from the fires that air quality is much better.  It is still essential to be prepared for hot summer driving conditions with plenty of water, a full tank of gas and well-researched travel plans.  These fires are not the only things happening that could affect your travel plans this summer.

When will it reopen? Can’t you make an estimated guess?

The short answer is “not really.”  Our agency supports the Incident Command Team that is managing the fire response.  Everyone is eager to get the road back open and traffic flowing, and the ICT has specific goals for what conditions are needed for that to happen.  Every day we meet to get updates and coordinate our effort to reach those goals, but the fact remains that fire conditions remain hazardous and dynamic, and the priority is safety for you and the crews working out there. 

If you are trying to make plans for your late summer trip, the best thing you can do is keep checking our travel alerts map and check for updates on Facebook, the WSDOT app and this post.

Resources for additional information:

Cedar Creek and Delancy Fires 2021: www.facebook.com/MazamaFires2021  

Cub Creek 2-2021 Fire: www.facebook.com/CubCreek2Fire2021

Smoke Blog: wasmoke.blogspot.com

Evacuations: www.okanogancounty.org/government/emergency_management/index.php 

Methow Conservancy (Wildfire Preparedness): https://methowconservancy.org/discover/fire-prep-recovery%20

Wildfire Ready Neighbors (House Assessments): https://wildfireready.dnr.wa.gov/

By Mike Allende

As you may be aware, the Varden, Delancy and Cedar Creek fires have been burning in Okanogan County for most of July. This has led to the closure of a stretch of the SR 20 North Cascades Highway, currently now stretching from mileposts 165 to 185, west of Mazama in the Methow Valley. Emergency responders requested the closure for safety and to allow them to stage equipment to battle the fires. The closure also is helping evacuations in the area.

Despite the incredible efforts of the firefighters, the fires continue to expand and emergency personnel now advise us that the highway closure will likely be in place at least through July and potentially longer.

We know road closures are frustrating and we don’t close them unless it’s necessary for safety. In this case, the requests of those tackling these dangerous conditions along with the related evacuations – including Okanogan Fire District and the National Forest Service – make clear that this closure is needed for the safety of everyone.

Three large wildfires burning in Okanogan County forced the closure of a stretch of the SR 20 North Cascades Highway west of Mazama.

We also recognize that the North Cascades Highway is a popular destination this time of year for travel between the beautiful Skagit and Methow valleys. The good news is, some of the most popular sites are still accessible, it just may take a little longer to get there.

OK, how do I get there?

This time of year, many people travel from the west side to Winthrop, Twisp Mazama and other areas that are easily reached once the SR 20 North Cascades Highway reopens from its winter closure in the spring. And while that highway does provide a convenient link between west and east, it’s not the only way to reach the Methow.

Typically, it takes about three hours or so to go from Seattle to Winthrop using SR 20. Getting there with that highway closed will add about 1½ hours to your trip. The most common way is:

·         I-90 eastbound for about 82 miles to exit 85

·         Take US 970 northbound toward Wenatchee

·         Continue on US 970/SR 10 for about 10 miles. This turns into US 97, which you’ll stay on for about 35 miles northbound

·         Merge onto eastbound US 2/northbound US 97 and US 97 north will take you into Twisp/Winthrop.

Alternatively, you could take US 2 over Stevens Pass through Leavenworth:

·         Take I-5 northbound to Exit 194/eastbound US 2 in Everett

·         Continue on US 2 for 107 miles, over Stevens Pass and through Leavenworth to Wenatchee

·         Take the US 2/US 97 north ramp to junction of US 2/97 and SR 28 in East Wenatchee and go left onto US 2/US 97 toward Orondo/Okanogan

·         Continue 57 miles toward junction of US 97/SR 153 south of Pateros and take a left onto SR 153 west to Winthrop. Continue for 40 miles to Winthrop.

Be sure to consult your favorite mapping app as it will help guide you where you need to go.

What’s open on SR 20?

The most popular destinations on SR 20 tend to be Diablo Lake and the Washington Pass overlook. They are truly beautiful locations with amazing views. The good news is that both are still open and accessible as they are west of the closure. You just won’t be able to go much further east than Washington Pass, including down into the Methow Valley. Also note that the North Cascades Highway is extremely popular and like most of the most popular recreation destinations in our state, it can get very crowded. Be sure to have backup plans if your preferred spot is full and never park illegally on the sides of the highway.

Remember that services are limited as you head into the mountains.  Gas stations, public rest areas, cell service and turn around points become increasingly limited heading east into Rainy Pass and Washington Pass.  Running out of gas or otherwise becoming stranded will make for a much longer, more stressful trip.

A look at where the road closure is compared to Washington Pass and Diablo Lake. Note that the unpredictability of fire means the closure points can move with little notice.

But is it safe?

If a highway isn’t safe, we would close it until it was. That said, there are fires burning east of Washington Pass and fires can be unpredictable. They can also lead to fast-changing conditions, road closures and delays. We encourage anyone traveling to areas where there is active fire activity to check with local emergency responders to see what the threat level is and also encourage people to research what the air condition is before they head to their destination.

You can also download our app for road updates, call the 511 travel information number and check our travel alerts page for more information.

Be prepared

Wherever you’re heading this time of year – but especially if you’re headed to areas with active fires – be sure you and your vehicle are prepared. As we mentioned, fires are unpredictable so road closures and delays can happen with little warning. Be sure you have plenty of gas, water, food, cell phone charger and other items you might need in an emergency. And be sure your vehicle is well maintained.

Those who are traveling in the area of active fires should be prepared for potential road closures or delays as they can happen quickly.

Closed means closed

It still amazes us that this happens, but we continue to get reports from those staffing the road closures that people are attempting to go around the closures. So to be clear:

·         There are no nearby alternate routes around the closure. There are no Forest Service roads or other side roads open that allow access. It’s closed. Closed.  You can’t go through. Closed.

·         Trying to get through a closed road puts you and others in the area at risk. There are literally fires burning nearby. You should be avoiding that, not driving into it.

·         If you go through a closure and get stuck, emergency responders including firefighters have to go save you. That puts them at even more risk and also takes them away from what they should be doing, which is fighting the fires that led to the closure.

We understand that there’s never a good time to close a road, especially a very popular summertime route like SR 20. We would love to have this route open, but safety of those responding to the fires and for the public is always No. 1. So until we get the all clear from the emergency responders battling to keep us all safe, the road must remain closed and we appreciate your understanding and cooperation.


Unknown said...

Perhaps you could point out that with fire all round the area, unless folks have urgent business or property in the Methow Valley that they have no reason to go there instead of giving them an alternate route. Many of the lakes and campgrounds are closed and looky loos are causing those who are evacuating problems. Just some ideas that seem like common sense to me.

JFR2LS said...

PEOPLE: "There are no nearby alternate routes around the closure. There are no Forest Service roads or other side roads open that allow access. It’s closed. Closed. You can’t go through. Closed."
Any questions?

Unknown said...

I noticed this morning the evacuation zones for the cub creek fire around Mazama have been downgraded to level 1 and 2. Any chance we can get the hwy open now?? Thanks.

Unknown said...

July is over. What gives?

Unknown said...

What criteria will you use to judge that is is time to reopen? What metrics must be met? Understanding the metrics being used to close a public highway would give us a sense of when this public highway might reopen.

WSDOT said...

In terms of criteria, it is important to understand that the conditions that are considered for a safe reopening are developed by the Incident Command Team- we are supporting them and are not the lead on determining the exact factors for reopening. Some conditions are completing fire lines and chipping materials that has been brought down to get it out of the way, other factors are the potential effects of the storm and shifting winds forecast later this week.

WSDOT said...

The highway will remain closed at least through this weekend. The closure of the highway is not directly linked to evacuation levels. We’ve updated this blog with our best information at the moment.

Unknown said...

When will hwy 20 reopen? Seem like incident command has set up camp on the hwy! What is the danger/risk? Get the hwy open please.

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