A sign thanking firefighters is displayed along an empty Index Avenue on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022 in Index, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

A sign thanking firefighters is displayed along an empty Index Avenue on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022 in Index, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Evacuation order lifted for Index residents who fled Bolt Creek fire

The Bolt Creek fire was up to 9,400 acres, with 5 percent contained. Evacuation orders were downgraded as weather and winds shifted.

INDEX — The Bolt Creek fire evacuation order was lifted Tuesday afternoon for Index, a town of about 170 residents.

And a Level 2 evacuation warning, meaning “be set to go,” was downgraded for those between Zeke’s Drive-In (east of Gold Bar) and Index. The Level 1 warning, meaning “be ready,” was lifted from Zeke’s to the Gold Bar city limits.

The announcement came at 4:45 p.m. after the Bolt Creek fire grew overnight Tuesday to over 9,400 acres, with authorities saying it is now 5% contained.

That was up from nearly 8,000 acres Monday, with 2% containment.

(Northwest Incident Management Team)

(Northwest Incident Management Team)

The fire’s growth does not mean its perimeter has ballooned, however, said Rachel Lipsky, a spokesperson for the Northwest Incident Management Team working the fire. Instead, the acreage gains reflect more burning inside the perimeter that hadn’t yet caught fire.

Lipsky compared it to dropping olive oil in a pan. All of the oil is inside the pan, but not all of the pan is covered. It’s just that now more of the pan is getting splashed with oil.

Upcoming weather could be a boon for the firefighting effort, as humid conditions and light winds tamp down the spread. Meanwhile, the outdoor burn ban for unincorporated Snohomish County was upgraded Tuesday to include recreational fires. That also includes Lake Stevens, Mill Creek, Monroe and Sultan. The ban went into effect immediately and will last indefinitely.

Only one out-building had been reported damaged by the fire. Further details about the damage were unavailable. There have been no reports of injuries.

The North Fork Skykomish River passes through Index on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

The North Fork Skykomish River passes through Index on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

And U.S. 2 remained closed to traffic for a 17-mile stretch from Gold Bar to Skykomish. The state Department of Transportation didn’t have an estimate for reopening.

Given the complexity of the terrain and proximity to towns, the team managing the fire was upgraded Tuesday morning from a more local Western Washington squad to Lipsky’s team, primarily from Washington and Oregon. About 380 personnel were involved in the current operation.

On the east side, fire crews looked to use Forest Service Road 6510 and Beckler Road to control the fire. Flames remained on the hill above the town of Skykomish. Firefighters were looking to use several roads as a buffer to keep the fire away from town.

On Monday, the fire burned on top of a tunnel near Money Creek Campground, east of Grotto. In Baring and Grotto, crews finished protecting structures with hose lays as they waited for the fire. Water buckets were dropped from a helicopter Monday to slow the spread.

On the west perimeter, crews were using Forest Service Road 6022, also known as Heybrook Lookout Road, to keep the fire away from Index, a town of about 170 people. Further controls were to be installed on Index-Galena Road and to the north.

And the containment zone to the south was U.S. 2.

‘We all band together’

On Tuesday afternoon, Index mayor Norm Johnson and town maintenance man Sean “Ribs” Horst chatted on Avenue A. Index’s official First Dog, Sage, also made an appearance.

Johnson stuck around town all weekend, he said, to help protect the town in case the fire got close. When residents of Index were told to evacuate Saturday night, the mayor said people in eight homes chose to stay.

“We have a really good town: We’re used to floods, we’re used to heavy snow,” Johnson said. “I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else besides here in a disaster. We all band together to do everything it takes to help a neighbor.”

Index mayor Norm Johnson (left) and town maintenance man Sean “Rib” Horst stand in front of the Index Town Hall on Tuesday. (Ellen Dennis / The Herald)

Index mayor Norm Johnson (left) and town maintenance man Sean “Rib” Horst stand in front of the Index Town Hall on Tuesday. (Ellen Dennis / The Herald)

Before the announcement, the mayor hoped authorities would scale back the evacuation warning from Level 3 to a Level 2. He said evacuees were starting to miss home.

Even with the Level 3 “go now” warning in place, many had already returned to Index. Longtime resident Joel Zimmerman estimated about 80% of those who evacuated were back in town by Tuesday afternoon.

Zimmerman chose to evacuate Saturday and pitched a tent at his shop in Snohomish. He drove to Index on Tuesday to grab clean clothes and tend to his garden.

“I think we’ll come back tomorrow,” Zimmerman said. “The fire’s moving the other way now.”

On Sunday morning, smoke in Index was so thick observers couldn’t see to Heybrook Ridge — just east of town. By Tuesday, the air had cleared substantially. Low-hanging clouds and crisp air felt like the start of fall.

Index School District Superintendent Brad Jernberg visited the town on Monday to check on school buildings and vehicles. The district canceled classes Monday and Tuesday. Jernberg said there would also be no school Wednesday.

School officials were deciding “day-by-day” when to reopen schools. Jernberg said it will depend on the weather, fire containment and highway conditions.

“It may be a little while. … Some of my staff live up toward Baring, and they’ve been evacuated,” he said.

An empty playground at the Index School on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022 in Index, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

An empty playground at the Index School on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022 in Index, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

‘A big blowtorch’

When Merlin Halverson’s wife heard about the wildfire, she started packing up clothes and pictures to get out of Gold Bar. But her husband, the longtime District 5 fire chief who retired at the end of 2021, wasn’t worried.

He knows fires like Bolt Creek won’t be a one-off. He’s glad he was able to retire before wildfires came to Western Washington.

“We’ve seen this coming for years with the climate changing,” Halverson said Tuesday. “I just think this is going to become part of the new normal here.”

Sky Valley Fire Chief Eric Andrews said his department, mostly made up of volunteers, had been preparing for such a fire for a while.

“We knew it was a matter of if, not when,” he said Tuesday.

And with more people flocking to the area, there are more chances for mistakes, Andrews said.

It’s unlikely the fire was caused by lightning, state Department of Natural Resources spokesperson Thomas Kyle-Milward said.

“I think there is speculation as to what caused it,” Kyle-Milward said, “but the official designation is still under investigation.”

Firefighters climbed uphill to cut down trees and prevent them from falling onto the roadway near the Money Creek Campground northwest of Skykomish on Monday. (Peter Mongillo / Snohomish Regional Fire and Rescue)

Firefighters climbed uphill to cut down trees and prevent them from falling onto the roadway near the Money Creek Campground northwest of Skykomish on Monday. (Peter Mongillo / Snohomish Regional Fire and Rescue)

The fire was first dispatched as 20 acres, Andrews said. When King County-based firefighters arrived, they reported a large column of smoke. They couldn’t see the fire’s “head” — the line that moves swiftly with the wind direction.

“It was pretty obvious,” he said, “we had a pretty major fire that was going to go a long ways.”

But he feels lucky the weather shifted. If the dry and windy conditions remained the same as Saturday, he figures it would’ve overtaken Index and been “just a big blowtorch down” to Gold Bar.

Instead, the Skykomish River valley can expect temperatures in the 60s for the next few days, with light winds blowing east and high humidity, said Brent Bowers, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Seattle. That contrasts with the conditions Saturday, when it was dry with winds blowing west, causing ash to rain down 40 miles away on Puget Sound.

There was a chance of thunderstorms near the fire late Tuesday, with a slight chance that could ignite further flames, he said.

Over the weekend, there’s a chance of light rain over the fire. It likely won’t be enough to put it out, but it would dampen it, Bowers said.

“The weather forecast is on our side this time,” Andrews said.

Herald reporter Mallory Gruben contributed to this report.

Ellen Dennis: 425-339-3486; ellen.dennis@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @reporterellen.

Jake Goldstein-Street: 425-339-3439; jake.goldstein-street@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @GoldsteinStreet.

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