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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘Good day’ for Bolt Creek fire crews, but threat isn’t over yet

Climbers on Merchant Peak across from Baring Mountain watch the Bolt Creek fire rapidly progress up and over the ridge before making a quick descent to evacuate the area Saturday.  (Alison Dempsey-Hall/Seattle Times)
By Hannah Furfaro, Nicholas Turner and Amanda Zhou Seattle Times

INDEX, Wash. – After a wildland blaze tore across the mountain foothills last weekend – with hot, easterly winds fueling the wildfire’s crawl and the smoke’s descent toward Western Washington towns – a welcome change in the wind came Monday.

A cool marine breeze from the west and a spike in humidity have knocked out the dry, windy conditions that fed the Bolt Creek fire, giving crews a window to strengthen their containment efforts and stave off the fire’s growth.

The fire stretched across an estimated 7,660 acres as of Monday afternoon, reflecting minimal growth from the day before, and was 2% contained. The sky, while still hazy, no longer glowed orange, and a light rain fell Monday morning.

“It’s been a good day today for firefighters,” said Jim Cahill, a Washington State Department of Natural Resources spokesperson.

But officials were quick to erase ideas that the fire’s threats had passed.

The wildfire still threatens hundreds of homes and other structures – though so far, it has only damaged one building. An evacuation order is still in place for Index, a town of roughly 170 people in Snohomish County. That order will remain until crews are “absolutely confident” the fire risk has disappeared, said Peter Mongillo, spokesperson for Snohomish Regional Fire and Rescue.

Schools in Sultan, farther west in Snohomish County along U.S. Highway 2, closed Monday in response to the wildfire and unhealthy air quality.

And a roughly 17-mile stretch of Highway 2 – from Gold Bar to Skykomish – remains closed to traffic.

Joseph Calabro, spokesperson for the Washington State Department of Transportation, said he doesn’t have an estimate for when the highway will reopen.

The continued closure is serving a dual purpose, officials say: It’s not yet safe to travel the road, and keeping the highway closed gives fire crews the ability to use the wide stretch of pavement as a fire barrier.

Much of the containment strategy has involved using Highway 2 and a stretch of forest road to shield forest to the west, south and east.

The fire spread downhill to several mile markers on Highway 2, Calabro said, burning tree trunks and weakening their roots – a dangerous combination that will require fire crews to clear timber along the road’s edge before officials can safely open the highway.

Mongillo said more than 400 firefighters were working Monday, cutting down trees and igniting controlled burns on the fire’s southern edge along Highway 2, “so that when the big fire comes, it runs into no fuel.”

“What we ultimately need right now is rain,” Mongillo said. “We need lots of rain.”

The terrain is steep and treacherous, he added, complicating crews’ efforts to quickly clear trees and open the roadway.

On Sunday night, he said, rocks fell onto the road after trees caught fire on top of a tunnel near the Money Creek Campground northwest of Skykomish. Geotechnical engineers have been sent out to assess the tunnel’s stability, Calabro said.

On the fire’s eastern edge, Cahill said, firefighters were at work creating a containment line along forest roads.

Crews were using chain saws to down trees. But Cahill said large, heavy pieces of equipment called masticators, which are similar to wood chippers and can chew through brush and trees, will arrive soon. The machinery will help turn trees along a roughly 6-mile north-south corridor into wood chips that will then be dumped on the side of the highway opposite the fire line.

Despite crews’ work and the ongoing evacuation order, an intermittent stream of cars – mostly emergency responders and fire department trucks – continued to pass in both directions near Highway 2’s western roadblock.

Danger persists as long as the fire is active, and Index’s mandatory evacuation order will likely continue for at least three more days, Southeast Washington Incident Management Team spokesperson Ben Shearer said Monday.

Still, some Index residents rushed home to grab items they forgot while evacuating, pick up a pet or simply check on their homes.

Josie Radzwill, who has lived in Index since the 1970s, was one of a handful of residents tired of waiting and encouraged by clearer skies. She returned home Monday morning to water her plants and refill a hummingbird feeder.

She’s prepared to leave immediately should the fire worsen or smoke blacken the sky. But she planned on spending the night in town.

“I missed my home,” she said.

Others who fled stayed with loved ones or at the Evergreen State Fairgrounds in Monroe.

Leigh Christianson and Len Gugala spent a second night sleeping at the fairgrounds after evacuating from Index on Saturday.

Gugala slept in the passenger seat of his truck with a pillow and a blanket, while Christianson slept on a cot inside a shelter for evacuees, making use of the facilities.

“Happiness is a hot shower,” she said.

Tonda Thibodeau, who also slept in the shelter Sunday night, said a friend texted her to ask whether she’s been stressed or afraid.

“Actually,” she said, “it’s boring waiting around to see whether nature will take you out or not.”