A late-summer, fast-growing inferno sent whole communities and hikers fleeing west of Stevens Pass on Saturday, and the threat is likely to remain at least through the weekend, as the wider region endures smoky air and ash falling from the sky.
The Bolt Creek fire not only covered mountain foothills in a blanket of orange, but spewed thin layers of ash on windshields across Western Washington, destroying any hopes a few weeks ago the region would be spared. Instead, air-quality readings in Cascade Mountain towns and Puget Sound cities pushed into the unhealthy range by Saturday afternoon, as in 2020 and 2018 when local air ranked among the most toxic on earth.
This fire, and another near White Pass that threatened the town of Packwood, drive home fears of routine wildfires in a changing climate.
As winds pushed the smoke west, the air quality index in Seattle deteriorated from moderate in the morning to “unhealthy” with an AQI of 178 as of 6 p.m.
The haze is likely to linger in Western Washington through Sunday. By Monday, winds are supposed to shift to southwesterly, bringing cleaner marine air toward Puget Sound, though the high will still hit 80, the National Weather Service predicted.
First responders blocked an 18-mile corridor of Highway 2 including the town of Skykomish, where only emergency workers and people evacuating were allowed. Traffic moved efficiently, said Joe Calabro, spokesperson for the Washington State Department of Transportation.
“This closure’s going to remain in place through the weekend,” he said. The risks of fire reaching the highway, and need for first responders to keep quick access, are the main reasons to keep that stretch of Highway 2 closed, he said. Highway 12 near White Pass is also expected to stay closed Sunday, said WSDOT.
The scenario to avoid is the 2018 Camp Fire in northeastern California, which spread so suddenly, amid confusing local alerts, that residents couldn’t drive away in time, and their vehicles blocked each other and firefighters on choked rural roads. Among 40,000 people in the area, 85 died.
About 200 firefighters from all over the state have assembled and more are coming, said Peter Mongillo, spokesperson for Snohomish Regional Fire and Rescue.
“The terrain is steep, which makes it difficult to get feet on the ground,” Mongillo said. “When fire meets hill, it crawls up fast and comes down slow and it all depends on the weather.” Winds of 10 mph were pushing the fire westward near Eagle Falls, he said.
In all, across Washington, nearly 260,000 acres of active uncontained fires were burning Saturday, with nearly 5,000 people fighting the blazes, according to the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center.
The Bolt Creek fire was reported early Saturday at 20 acres, and rapidly grew to over 2,000 acres, according to the Washington State Department of Natural Resources. Mongillo put the fire’s size at 2,000 to 5,000 acres Saturday night.
DNR spokesperson Ryan Rodruck said state crews and aircraft were rushed to the fire zone. Winds let up just enough late Saturday that helicopters could dump water on the fires.
A mandatory Level 3 evacuation was ordered between Index and Skykomish, north of Highway 2, meaning everyone in 400 homes was to leave the area. Anyone needing assistance should call 911.
At one point during Saturday’s chaos, Sky Valley Fire sent an erroneous evacuation alert to thousands of people across Snohomish and King counties. “Someone pushed the wrong button,” said Jarred Spence, deputy chief of support services with Sky Valley. Authorities followed up with accurate notices and tweets.
Sky Valley Fire said Saturday afternoon it tallied 14 cars parked at trailheads, based on reports it heard of possibly trapped hikers.
“The sheriff’s department has made contact with them, and we’re being told they are hunkering down right now,” said Mongillo, in a news conference posted by KING 5.
Benjamin Jurkovich, a weather chaser who traveled to Index on Saturday morning to glimpse the late-summer winds, said he could see flames on the mountains leaping 40 feet into the air. What he first thought was the sound of a passing train was actually the wildfire ripping through the forest.
“Apocalyptic is really not a bad description of how it felt,” he said. “There was thick smoke, the sun was obscured. Kind of an orangish-red hue was washing over everything and ash falling out of the sky.”
Traffic on Interstate 90 is expected to be more congested than usual Sunday, when thousands return home from weekend travel, because of expected wildfire-related closures for both Stevens Pass and White Pass, according to WSDOT. Drivers in the Leavenworth and Wenatchee areas were advised to divert through Blewett Pass to I-90, for trips to the Seattle-Everett area, instead of trying to drive Highway 2 westward.
BNSF Railway suspended train service in the Skykomish Valley. And officials are worried about timber being ignited by Bonneville Power Administration regional electricity wires, though through Saturday evening BPA was continuing to transmit power, Mongillo said.
In Oregon, Portland General Electric pre-emptively cut off power in several areas to avoid sparking new blazes — even in places as densely populated as Portland’s West Hills, where gusting east winds circulated.
Adam Wicks-Arshack has lived just outside Index since 2012, on the Skykomish River just south of Highway 2, with his wife and now 10-month-old son. When they went to bed Friday night, the sky was slightly hazy. When they woke up, it was a deep orange; pieces of charred bark and pine needles fell from the sky and the river filled with debris.
Their property was under a Level 1 evacuation order, but they decided to leave anyway; the air was so thick with smoke, they became concerned about their son’s lungs.
Wicks-Arshack had never seen fire like that west of the mountains, but wondered if it was a sign of things to come. “It was so powerful just to see that rapid change of our entire place where we live,” said Wicks-Arshack, a lawyer with Snohomish County Legal Services.
Power went out in Skykomish. “It could be a couple of days, just based on how long it takes for the fire to get under control,” said Sultan Mayor Russell Wiita, who took a generator from Sultan to replace a downed generator in Skykomish, in hopes that sewer pumps can return to service there soon.
The Event Center in Startup took in about 15 evacuees, and Saturday night had much more room for people, volunteers said. Two churches in Sultan were accepting evacuees: Crosswater Community Church at 202 Birch St. and Mountainview Church at 320 Sixth St.
Volunteer Melody Dazey said livestock can be brought to Building 106 at the Evergreen Fairgrounds in Monroe, while some residents are opening their pastures or chicken coops, even space for reptile tanks. For help, phone 360-793-0983 or 425-301-2267.
In the town of Index, residents and restaurant owners volunteered time and food to feed first responders.
The town, population 178, is typically a haven for whitewater kayaking on the Skykomish River, and rock climbing and hiking near the jagged peak of Mount Index. But on Saturday, mostly only first responders including firefighters and locals were milling about.
Mayor Norm Johnson, 64, has spent the day hanging around a one-red room town hall, where council minutes are printed and taped to the window and the jail in the back room has been converted into a bathroom.
Sarah Knauss, who has lived out of a RV for three years, walked up to the town hall to ask if she’ll need to evacuate. She spent the whole day getting her rig and belongings together, she told Johnson.
He tells her the news he’s told everyone, prepare for an evacuation, but it’s not mandatory.
Johnson said he’s not too personally worried.
“I have a gut feeling it’s not going to come this way,” he said.
Bill Corson was cooking burgers in his Index restaurant for “anyone helping.” Corson, who also runs an outdoors adventure company and a wedding venue, said a rock climbing couple had planned to be married in Index on Saturday. Around 70 to 100 guests had to go home, he said, and now only ash remains atop their outdoor tent.
A scorching week
The Bolt Creek fire adds to what has been a difficult week for fires in Western Washington. The Goat Rocks fire, near Packwood in Lewis County, was estimated to span 1,200 acres on Saturday. Highway 12 from Skate Creek to White Pass was shut down as a result. Highway 123 was also closed, from Highway 12 to Highway 410. Timberline, Goat Rocks and High Valley neighborhoods east of Packwood were under a Level 3 evacuation, while the remainder of Packwood is under a Level 2 evacuation — a notice to pack bags.
The Kalama fire, southwest of Mount St. Helens, spurred Level 3 evacuations from the border of Cowlitz and Lewis counties and the border of Skamania and Cowlitz counties. Residents can find more information on the U.S. Forest Service’s website.
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