Tuesday, February 7, 2023
Feb. 7, 2023

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After Bolt Creek fire, Highway 2, mountain towns prone to floods, slides

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SEATTLE — After a fall full of drought, fire and smoke, King County officials are gearing up for flash floods and landslides.

The Bolt Creek fire burned nearly 15,000 acres on private, state, tribal and federal lands along Highway 2 from the Beckler River campground on the east to just below Heybrook Ridge on the west. Parts of the burn area, weakened by the loss of vegetation, are now prone to slides.

The communities of Baring and Grotto are directly in the path of potential debris flows from the Bolt Creek burn scar. That includes about 300 homes, said Brendan McCluskey, director of King County Emergency Management. Skykomish is also at risk, but the river provides a layer of protection, King County officials say.

Just a half-inch of rain an hour could trigger a flash flood, or debris flow — a fast-moving landslide — from the burn scar, National Weather Service warning coordination meteorologist Reid Wolcott told regional emergency planning officials Wednesday morning. That’s not an unprecedented amount of rain.

“This is a new hazard to us here in this portion of Washington,” Wolcott said. “This is not unique across the U.S. It’s certainly not unique across the West. But for us here in Western Washington, this is not something that we’ve really had to deal with before, especially at this scale.”

King County Executive Dow Constantine, regional emergency management representatives and National Weather Service officials gathered Wednesday to discuss what to expect this winter and how they’re preparing.

At a later news conference in the county’s emergency management hub, Constantine warned that the risk of slides was not just a seasonal concern but something people can anticipate dealing with for years to come. The risk will remain elevated for the next two to five years, Wolcott said.

The county and National Weather Service distributed 100 radios for people living in at-risk areas that may not have cellphone service to receive weather alerts. They will act as “smoke alarms” for all weather hazards, Wolcott said.

Officials delivered the same message: Be ready.

The burn scar is in a location that typically sees atmospheric rivers, strong frontal systems and thunderstorms during the spring, summer and fall, Wolcott said. All of those can bring heavy rainfall at any time. It can happen without warning, and debris flows and flash floods can begin within minutes.

The region is also entering another La Niña year, and Wolcott said projections show above normal precipitation through the winter.

People living in at-risk communities along Highway 2 should have a kit of essential supplies: flashlights, food, water and clothing that will last two weeks. They should monitor weather advisories and sign up for emergency alerts from the county.

If it’s unsafe for people to leave, they should head to the highest point in their homes, McCluskey said.

The county this week installed two cellular-equipped weather stations that will help provide real-time weather data. Alert systems will be triggered by a combination of heavy rain — about a quarter of an inch in 15 minutes — and other anticipated risk factors.

People should check the weather and road reports before traveling on Highway 2; there’s a potential a sudden debris flow could sweep cars off the road, Wolcott said.

Debris on the highway may prompt closures and isolate people living in those mountain towns. For many it’s the only way in and out.

Local leaders say it highlights the need to provide an alternative exit route, like fixing the Old Cascade Highway, so fewer people are at risk of being stranded.

“Previously that probably wasn’t considered to be a significant risk,” Skykomish Mayor Henry Sladek said. “But given the situation now, that is an increased risk and very likely to happen a number of times.”

Sladek said the town of Skykomish and the county have led two community meetings to emphasize the risks this winter. They warned people of the possibilities of isolation and multiday power outages, he said.

This year, Constantine said, there’s not a lot that can be done to make the area safer. For now, the focus is being prepared.

“This is a very unusual type of event to have west of the Cascade crest,” he said, “but it is going to become more common as the climate slowly changes and we’re going to have to develop ways to protect people and property.”

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