SULTAN — The Skykomish River valley is breathtakingly beautiful: crystal streams, jagged peaks and majestic scenery that often finds its way to Instagram.
But in a wildfire, it could be a potential death trap.
With only one arterial route to safety, U.S. 2, locals are sounding the alarm, following the one-two punch of the Bolt Creek fire last year and the deadly Maui wildfires last month.
“All infrastructure can fail,” said Chuck Lie, a Gold Bar City Council member.
Lie has been vocal about problems associated with the U.S. 2 bottleneck — an issue weekend travelers through Sultan and Gold Bar are intimately familiar with. Lie wants to see political action. Following the Hawaii wildfires, he emailed state lawmakers outlining his concerns. He’s worried Sky Valley could join other recent scenes of wildfire notoriety, like Paradise, California and Lahaina, Hawaii — swift-moving disasters made worse by a lack of escape routes.
U.S. 2 is the main way out of the Sky Valley. A car crash or a tree blocking a highway would leave evacuees with no good options. Sultan has two other routes outside of U.S. 2 runningwest toward Monroe — Ben Howard Road on the other side of the Skykomish and Old Owen Road on the other side of the Sultan River — but both are winding, two-lane roads.
U.S. 2, along with I-90, is one of two routes through the North Cascades travelers can frequent year-round. The highway backs up frequently along the winding Skykomish River, where about 40,000 people live between Monroe and Stevens Pass.
On a busy summer Sunday, when hikers fill the parking lots at trailheads, the 20-mile drive from Index to Monroe can take hours.
“The Sky Valley could be next on the international news,” Lie wrote. “We need the traffic flow improvements in Sultan now.”
‘These damn stoplights’
There are three traffic lights along U.S. 2 when passing through Sultan.
Lie believes they should be replaced with roundabouts, since studies have shown they’re better at keeping traffic flowing. Others have suggested a road to bypass downtown Sultan entirely, though Lie called that a “fantasy” in his email to state legislators.
“The real issue we have is the Sultan bottleneck, you know, is getting rid of these damn stoplights,” Lie said.
For many locals, it is a constant problem.
“We just plan our lives around avoiding traffic because it’s gotten that bad,” said Liv Crouse, of Sultan, who works as a barista and bartender in town. “It’s definitely gotten worse in the last few years with all the new development they’ve had in Sultan.”
Crouse would like to see more roundabouts in Sultan. She said one recent crash left U.S. 2 traffic at a standstill for 45 minutes.
So far this year, state troopers have responded to 47 crashes on U.S. 2 from the Evergreen Fairgrounds to Index. Since 2018, that stretch has averaged 67 crashes per year, according to the Washington State Patrol. And that clogs the road.
“Since it’s only two lanes, you can’t really move until you divert the accident,” Crouse said.
There is one roundabout on the eastern outskirts of Sultan at 339th Avenue SE, also known as Rice Road. It was opened in 2012 at a cost of $4.9 million. It had its detractors.
“In my opinion, it’s the most waste of money I have ever heard of,” one Gold Bar resident told The Daily Herald at the time. “(The state) should have put another access road or added a traffic light.”
It was the first roundabout built on a state highway in Washington. The public’s past frustration, Lie said, has led city and county leaders to shy away from roundabouts.
“I felt bad for the WSDOT crew that was there,” Lie said. “People were just hostile.”
In December 2022, the city of Sultan released a U.S. 2 improvement report, concluding the best option was a four-lane highway through Sultan with four roundabouts, each with two lanes.
Similar roundabouts were opened by the state Department of Transportation near Lake Stevens earlier this year. The cost for the U.S. 2 project through that 3½ mile stretch of the city was estimated at $177 million.
Sultan Public Works Director Nate Morgan said the city is working to secure grants and funds for the project. Sultan is also working on a separate project to put a roundabout at the intersection of U.S. 2 and Main Street.
But for a city of around 6,500, the massive amount of money required to fix the problem is a huge roadblock.
“All of our city street projects rely on grant funding,” Morgan said. “There is no other way we can fund street improvements.”
Legislators are well aware of the issue, including state Sen. Brad Hawkins, R-East Wenatchee. The stretch of U.S. 2 in Sultan is his territory.
“Washington state should have been investing in Highway 2 capacity and safety improvements over the past several decades while the population kept booming, but it hasn’t,” Hawkins wrote in an email. “Addressing all the needs along the corridor will now take several decades to catch up and likely cost us hundreds of millions of dollars. Even millions and millions of more dollars will not solve all issues because the geography restricts some options. That’s just the reality.”
‘Not a matter of if’
Wildfires aren’t the only natural disaster threatening the Sky Valley.
Chemicals could spill from a train, the Culmback Dam at Spada Lake could burst or — when a major earthquake inevitably hits — there could be several catastrophes at once. Flooding preparations are part of life for valley residents, many of whom literally live on the banks of a wild river.
But fires are a pressing, growing threat. Lie is not the only person worried about them.
Sky Valley Fire Chief Eric Andrews is concerned, too. His district has around 200 square miles to cover, most of it forested.
“It’s not a matter of if we’ll have another fire — we will have (one),” Andrews said.
Andrews has been with Sky Valley Fire, aka Fire District 26, since 1977. He knows about the local wildfire threat as well as anyone. Past “bad” fires had been 200 or 300 acres. Bolt Creek left a boot-shaped burn scar of 14,000 acres.
“The west side of the state has not seen this type of thing like Bolt Creek before,” Andrews said. “It’s getting worse, so I’m worried.”
Fire District 26’s wildfire protection planprovides a blueprint for wildfire response in the valley. It is the only fire district in Snohomish County with such a plan.
In northern Snohomish County, where Highway 530 is the main way in and out, firefighters are drafting a plan and have documents online. That area includes Oso and Darrington — two communities that were largely cut off by the deadly mudslide in 2014.
As Snohomish County’s population grows, more residents are living in areas of increased wildfire risk. At especially high risk are homes north and east of Gold Bar. Land directly north of Index is also marked as high risk, as are places south and east of town. Southern faces of mountains are generally drier and hotter than the north, shaded side of peaks.
In the longer term, Snohomish County is working on a “comprehensive examination” of wildfire protection needs, said Lucia Schmit, the county’s emergency management director.
“We expect to spend the coming months meeting with residents and landowners plus partners at nonprofits, area fire districts, state and federal agencies and local tribes,” Schmit wrote in an email. “As the planning effort advances, people from communities around the county can expect to be engaged through surveys, public meetings and other outreach efforts.”
Feedback will be folded into the county’s larger hazard mitigation plan and get updated every five years, Schmit said.
‘No way out’
But even with the best-laid plans and maps and contingencies, the problem remains.
U.S. 2 is the only way out for many people in the Sky Valley. And it wouldn’t take much to snip it, with a result as dire as cutting an artery.
“If I have to evacuate Gold Bar, it’s going to take a long time,” Andrews said. “All we need is one traffic accident, one tree across the road, boulders in the highway and it’ll be completely blocked. There’s no way out.”
A series of tight, narrow bridges thread the Skykomish River on U.S. 2 from Monroe to Index as well.
Lie said county emergency management officials were blunt when they spoke to Gold Bar residents earlier this year: Being cut off from the outside world could easily become a reality, like it was in Oso in 2014.
“When it comes to wildfire, these population islands would just be island crematoriums unless there was a functional evacuation opportunity,” Lie wrote to the legislators.
The river — like the ocean was in Maui — could become the last-ditch effort to ride out the fire. But if it’s early enough in the season or it’s a year with heavy snow or rain, the river could be high and extra dangerous. Then it becomes a choice of burning or maybe drowning.
“That’s the only other potential we think of,” Andrews said, “if Highway 2 gets blocked and a fire comes fast to you and you have to get out of your vehicle and take refuge in a safe place.”
All of this is no secret, Schmit wrote. Evacuation measures must take this into account, she said. It’s also why the county is pushing out new simplified evacuation messaging.
“That’s one factor in the regional effort to build understanding for Ready-Set-Go! alerts,” Schmit wrote. “Emergency personnel need the public’s help getting people out of harm’s way as swiftly and efficiently as possible.”