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Saturday, June 3, 2023
June 3, 2023

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Inside the Bolt Creek fire — and the newly burning forests of the western Cascades

3 Photos
The Bolt Creek Fire is bring about 15,000 acres in the Wild Sky Wilderness in Central Washington.
The Bolt Creek Fire is bring about 15,000 acres in the Wild Sky Wilderness in Central Washington. (Washington DNR) Photo Gallery

INDEX — Thinning fuels on a hand crew in the first few days of the Bolt Creek fire, Cassandra Brazfield recalls hearing thuds as trees hit the ground.

Early on, the fire — that for weeks has smoldered and smoked out Western Washington — behaved in interesting ways, she said. “It would just burn when it was super humid.” It would light up the “duff,” a dense, peaty layer of partially decomposed moss and litter, and the understory would catch fire. Trees would fall unexpectedly.

“It was scary,” said Brazfield, a firefighter with the state Department of Natural Resources.

Monday afternoon, wearing soot-stained yellow and green fire gear, she was swinging a metal device to measure relative humidity at the top of Heybrook Lookout. Brazfield is her team’s “eyes in the sky” high above a milky-white smoke plume. The team was intentionally burning up remaining fuels on the northwest edge of the fire.

The percentage of humidity had risen from the low 20s over the weekend to the 70s, a welcome shift more favorable for wildland firefighting.

It was a “pivot point,” incident commander Leonard Johnson said Monday. Starting Thursday afternoon, a cool, westerly wind should give Western Washington a lasting reprieve from the smoke, said Matt Dehr, lead meteorologist with DNR. With it, wet weather beginning Friday is expected to bring respite for the roughly 300 people working to contain the Bolt Creek fire.

Over an inch of rain is forecast to fall on most fires, Dehr said, with most areas possibly seeing rain by 3 p.m. Friday.

But the cooldown comes after low humidity, easterly winds, high temperatures and the region’s prolonged dry spell compounded to help ignite several new fires last weekend. The Nakia Creek fire east of Vancouver, Clark County, grew to nearly 2,000 acres from 150 acres within hours Sunday, forcing thousands of people to evacuate. The weather also lit up existing fires, like Bolt Creek, which could be seen ablaze by drivers on Highway 2.

The past two months, Johnson said, similar weather conditions have helped drive a new phenomenon as Seattle saw the driest July-September period on record: Now, wildfires are widespread along the western flank of the Cascades.

There’s fire in Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. There’s fire in Gifford Pinchot National Forest. And, he said, “we have fire clear down in the Washougal area.”

A warming West

Spring this year in Washington was unusually cool and wet, while summer was hot and dry. Some seasonal weather events may be “flukes” but they build upon conditions destabilized by a warming planet, according to state climatologist Nicholas Bond.

“Maybe it’s an early indication of climate change,” Bond said. Ongoing fires burning west of the Cascade crest could be a dress rehearsal for longer fire seasons, and longer periods of incessant smoke in urban or metropolitan areas, he said. “It’s not going to be every summer, by any means, but this is the sort of thing that’s going to be happening more.”

While average statewide rainfall hasn’t decreased significantly in recent years, summer rainfall has been declining. These conditions have primed Western Washington forests for wildfires that can ignite abruptly and spread quickly.

Reliable communication and well-maintained evacuation routes are just some of the preparations rural communities should be making now, rather than later, Bond said.

Even though the Puget Sound region is poised to receive a long-awaited dose of precipitation, he warned that rain and wind from the first storm of the season could trigger landslides and knock down trees near homes, trails and roads.

It’s important people stay away from the Bolt Creek burn scar and other fire areas this weekend, Dehr said. Those areas will be most susceptible to flooding and mudslides.

“People who live in those regions have to recognize that [wildfires] won’t happen all the time, but when they do, it can be a big deal,” he said.

A mountain town

Talk of climate change can be daunting for communities in the Cascade foothills. But the surge of westside fires is leading some to reimagine their future.

“We just haven’t dealt with that on the west side,” Skykomish Mayor Henry Sladek said Monday. “Some people still don’t believe in climate change, but this is an example of what’s happening.”

After the Bolt Creek fire erupted, the residents of Skykomish dealt with a short power outage followed by closures of Highway 2. The town depends on seasonal travel and tourism — September, the month the fire started, is usually one of the busiest for tourist-dependent businesses. This year, establishments along the town’s main thoroughfare have seen a massive dip in traffic — to about a quarter of their usual customers, Sladek said.

“It’s really starting to get to people,” he said. But residents aren’t completely dependent on income from people passing through, nor are they unacquainted with profound change.

The town has reached the tail end of a seismic cleanup project that began in 2006. The town served as a switching station for trains in the early 20th century and became an entrenched source of ground pollution, as oil, diesel and petroleum leached into the soil and even into its namesake river.

After contaminants were discovered, plans were made in the early 2000s to remove as much of the toxic material as possible.

A barrier built 30 feet underground now shields groundwater from contaminants that still remain.

Its old buildings are now juxtaposed with new streets, sidewalks and street lights. The town, having rid itself of fossil fuel infrastructure only to be thrust into new and unpredictable wildfire, is both changing and “frozen in time,” Sladek said.

The Skykomish mayor also owns Cascadia Inn, a 14-room lodge, café and bar built in 1922, and he and his wife have lived in the house behind it for 20 years. The former Seattleite remembers visiting Skykomish as a child and learning how to ski near Stevens Pass.

“This place has gone through a lot for a little town,” Sladek said. For him, the growing threats of wildfire, heatwaves and drought seem unavoidable, but not insurmountable. “We’ll all get through it.”

Mopping up, awaiting the rain

The Bolt Creek fire has burned over 14,600 acres (or 22.8 square miles) 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.

It was first reported early Sept. 10 near Forest Service Road 6510, north of Skykomish. In a week, it grew to over 10,000 acres.

While the investigation is pending, officials say the fire was human-caused.

Towns were evacuated. State officials intermittently closed the highway as smoldering trees toppled nearby. The smoky haze persisted, blowing throughout Western Washington.

Some of the landscapes it touched had never seen fire, according to historical records obtained by Johnson’s firefighting team. All of it was logged in the past 100 years, meaning much of the forest was dense, second-stage growth.

“The fire moves differently and at different speeds and it depends on how dry it is,” Johnson said. Right now, the forests “haven’t had any precipitation for so long that they’re just ready to burn. And most of the fuel, in almost all the forests, is available right now.”

The trees Brazfield remembers hearing crash to the forest floor, accustomed to northwesterly winds, were instead being hit with breezes from the east. The risk of falling trees coupled with mountainous terrain made it even more dangerous for firefighters, Johnson said.

“That’s why it’s taken so long to get this fire in shape,” said Don Ferguson, spokesperson for the incident management team.

From the start, the goal has been to keep the fire from spreading into populated areas, and to protect power lines, buildings and homes. Fire crews cleared out fuels while others bulldozed and hand-cut containment lines. They also relied on and monitored existing barriers like roads, rivers and streams, to act as containment lines.

Small planes and helicopters have intermittently dropped buckets of water on problem areas, Johnson said. The fire has mostly burned freely on the north side into the Wild Sky Wilderness.

As the sun began to set Monday, Kris Pflugh of Chewack Wildfire was using a pickax to pull up hot ash and dirt, exposing orange embers. Beside him, Kenny Dickinson sprayed down the hot earth. They were mopping up hotspots as they made their way down Beckler River Road, north of Skykomish.

Soon, crews like this one from Spokane, will get to go home. Officials hope the rain will subdue the fire until finally snow snuffs it out later in the year.