INDEX — Sarah Jay Knauss steered her green-and-yellow bus west from the Cascades on U.S. 2 Saturday night, hoping to escape thick plumes of wildfire smoke in her rearview.
She pulled into the parking lot of Zeke’s Drive-In. Inside the bus sat her partner, a friend, and their pets — Juju, a dog, and Pepper, a cat.
An evacuation alert prompted the group to flee their home after dark in search of a place to sleep for the night. The roadside hamburger restaurant offered the first viable place to pull over.
“I have a small coolant leak,” Knauss said, “and I didn’t want to take the bus very far. It was dark, which was a hard time to triage vehicle issues.”
Knauss, of Index, joined hundreds of evacuees who fled their homes over the weekend as the quickly growing Bolt Creek wildfire filled the sky over Puget Sound with haze and ash.
On Monday, the group drove further east and took refuge in the parking lot of Gold Bar Family Grocer.
Parking lots, community centers and grassy patches in towns along U.S. 2 turned into havens for buses, campers and tents Saturday night as people drove west in search of safety.
Feelings of uncertainty resounded among those displaced by the fire Monday, as they prepared for their third night sleeping away from home.
“We’re kind of torn now,” Knauss said, “as far as what to do or where to go. Right now, I just need to lay down, quiet my mind and try not to cry.“
The wildfire’s advance appears to have slowed since the weekend, authorities said. On Monday evening, an estimated 7,600 acres were burning northwest of Skykomish near Heybrook Ridge. U.S. 2 was set to be closed west of Stevens Pass for the “foreseeable future,” Snohomish Regional Fire and Rescue spokesperson Peter Mongillo said.
Evacuation warnings remained in place Monday for residents nearby. The towns of Index and Skykomish, as well as the areas in between north of U.S. 2, were at a Level 3 evacuation warning, meaning “go now.”
A Level 2 evacuation warning, meaning “be set to go,” remained in place Monday for people between Zeke’s Drive-In (east of Gold Bar) and Index. A Level 1 warning, meaning “be ready,” was in place from Zeke’s to the Gold Bar city limits.
The wildfire was 2% contained Monday morning, according to authorities.
Still, firefighters were confident the immediate threat to the town of Index had been substantially diminished, Mongillo said, adding that the fire appeared less volatile. Overnight, cold marine air moved eastward from Puget Sound in the direction of the fire, increasing the humidity in the area of the burn to 58%.
Over the weekend, winds blowing west had fanned the fire’s rapid growth. This week, winds are forecast to blow the other direction, National Weather Service meteorologist Jacob DeFitch said. Cleaner air off the Pacific Ocean will push smoke east.
Rain showers are predicted through Wednesday in the Cascades. And forecasters aren’t ruling out the chance of a thunderstorm, DeFitch said.
“The rain will help,” the meteorologist said, “and it will lessen the fire danger for a time. But it’s not going to be enough rainfall to make any significant headway with it.”
This week’s forecast will be a welcome change from the hot weather seen west of the Cascades this past month.
Is fall weather here to stick around? DeFitch said he wouldn’t go so far as to say that.
“We’ve still got all of September to get through,” he said. “We can’t rule out some additional warm-ups here and there over the next few weeks.”
‘Safety for workers’
BNSF Railway had resumed train operations through the Skykomish Valley. Trains were moving again, but at much slower speeds out of an abundance of caution, Mongillo said.
As for U.S. 2, reopening the highway to traffic may take time. The fire loosened the rocky foundation beneath burnt trees. Large rocks toppled onto the highway, and authorities used a front-loader to clear off traffic lanes. Potential falling rocks posed a safety threat for drivers.
Authorities likely will consult a geologist when they consider reopening the road, Mongillo said. One area of concern was a tunnel near Money Creek Campground, east of Grotto. The danger of loose rock falling onto the road is particularly high in that stretch, authorities said.
The Snohomish County Public Utility District cut power around 8:30 a.m. Sunday to 335 customers between Gold Bar and Skykomish, spokesperson Aaron Swaney said.
“For us in this situation, it’s all about safety for workers,” Swaney said.
Such outages are pretty rare for the PUD, the spokesperson noted. It’s the first time he remembers it happening as a result of a forest fire in years. Usually, the district will cut power for structural fires, such as the massive blaze that burned an Everett waterfront construction site in 2020.
Late Monday afternoon, power was restored to all 335 PUD customers, Swaney said. No PUD power poles or lines had been damaged.
On Saturday evening, Bonneville Power Administration had also cut power to three high-voltage transmission lines. Spokesperson Maryam Habibi said such an outage is to keep fire crews safe and prevent additional ignitions fueling the fire.
But at 1 p.m. Monday, the power was restored there, as well, Habibi said.
As of noon Monday, Puget Sound Energy had about 760 customers without power near Skykomish and Baring, according to the agency. Over 340 of those were due to a tree falling into a power line Saturday morning, in the nascent stages of the fire. The rest were proactively taken out of service.
Crews, as part of the Wildland Mobilization Team, respond to the #BoltCreekFire. The fire is currently 2% contained. Firefighters from across the region are providing structure protection and building fire lines to protect communities and infrastructure. pic.twitter.com/Wns8IxabbO— Bothell Fire Department (@BothellFire) September 12, 2022
‘This is surreal’
Residents of Snohomish County expressed frustration about a mistaken countywide evacuation alert sent out by authorities at 3:07 p.m. Saturday. The text message alert was not meant to go to anyone west of Index. Yet residents as far as Shoreline, Everett and Camano Island reported receiving the warning. A countywide correction was issued at 3:37 p.m.
“It was a system error,” Jason Biermann, a policy advisor for the county executive’s office, told The Daily Herald minutes after the mistaken alert went out.
This week, the Snohomish County Department of Emergency Management issued a public statement responding to the error.
“We’ve already requested that our vendor for this technology conduct an analysis so that we can better understand what happened Saturday, including what worked, what didn’t and why,” wrote Dara Salmon, the department’s interim director. “Based on the analysis, we’ll review our procedures to ensure that future uses of this alert and warning tool result in messages that are as accurate and targeted as possible.”
On Saturday afternoon, Ellen Cassen evacuated her home outside Index upon receiving the first alert to evacuate. She drove back home when she heard news it was a mistake. A few hours later, when she got another evacuation alert, she drove west once again.
It was confusing, Cassen said, between the different reports she saw from the county and all over the internet. Cassen slept in the back of her Subaru that night, parked in front of the Startup Event Center.
“It was very odd, to see the sky looking like a sunset in the morning,” she said Sunday. “This is surreal.”
Cassen was one of dozens who took refuge in or outside of the event center over the weekend. Sky Valley Chamber of Commerce director Debbie Copple spent her weekend at the center, coordinating meals and stocking the refrigerator full with foods and beverages donated from community members.
Copple said communication was one of the biggest challenges posed by the evacuations. So she set up a home base for folks in Startup, hoping evacuees would come to her so she can try to direct them to other services.
“People have been really, really hoping they’ll be able to get home,” Copple said. “We’re here if people need, and we’re more-than-happy to feed people.”
Snohomish County officials set up a website with resources at bit.ly/3LYpl9O.
Shelters for westbound evacuees:
• Evergreen State Fairgrounds, 14405 179th Ave. SE, Monroe. The Red Cross is stationed there, and shelter, food and showers are available. There is also outdoor space for people with campers and room for livestock to shelter.
• Crosswater Community Church, 202 Birch St., Sultan.
• The Startup Event Center, 14315 366th Ave. SE, Startup.
• Gold Bar City Hall (limited space), 107 5th St., Gold Bar.
The Sky Valley Chamber of Commerce was coordinating efforts to help residents who need to move livestock. For information, call Debbie Copple at 425-238-2651.
Herald reporter Jacqueline Allison contributed to this story.