INDEX — A rapidly growing wildfire prompted mandatory evacuations from Index to Skykomish, as well as the closure of U.S. 2 west of Stevens Pass until further notice on Saturday.
The Bolt Creek fire erupted around 5 a.m. Saturday along its namesake creek just north of Skykomish and west of Beckler River, turning skies reddish with falling ash around Snohomish County.
By 10 a.m., the fire’s size was estimated at 1,000 acres “in rugged terrain,” according to the state Department of Natural Resources. By 12:30 p.m., its estimated acreage had doubled to 2,000. State Deputy Fire Marshal Gregory Baruso said the fire kept growing in the afternoon, and by evening, it was estimated to be somewhere in the range of 3,000 to 5,000 acres.
The #BoltCreekFire was first reported early this morning near Skykomish. DNR is responding with aircraft. US 2 is currently closed and evacuation orders are in place. More information as available. @wspd7pio @WSDOT_East pic.twitter.com/PWhTbZY8Ed— Washington State DNR Wildfire (@waDNR_fire) September 10, 2022
Its cause was under investigation by the Washington Fire Marshal’s Office.
About 200 firefighters from all across Western Washington responded to the scene.
State troopers shut down U.S. 2 for a 17-mile stretch roughly from Zeke’s Drive-In (east of Gold Bar) to the east end of Skykomish, according to the state Department of Transportation. Authorities urged people to avoid the area and seek alternate routes.
Showers of charred pine needles fell along the highway Saturday. Into the evening, ashes blown west by the wind rained down in Everett, Marysville and Puget Sound, as the sky glowed pale orange.
The state Fire Marshal’s Office announced Saturday afternoon that state fire assistance had been mobilized to contain the Bolt Creek fire. Three strike teams were responding to help local fire crews, just south of the King-Snohomish county line.
“It is burning in heavy timber, logging slash, and brush and is threatening Bonneville Power,” the announcement read.
Around 12:30 p.m., Robyn Meakin heard a knock on her front door in Baring. It was law enforcement, saying, “You need to evacuate immediately.”
Within 12 minutes, she and her family packed into their car and left for the Startup Event Center, one of the local facilities offering shelter, food and support for people displaced by the fire.
“I gave a kiss to my house and said, ‘Be here when we get back, please,’” Meakin said. “It is scary. This is all new to us. We’ve never had a fire up there like this.”
Meakin, her partner, Al, and their son, Travis, sat somberly in the event center auditorium that evening and munched on teriyaki from across the street at Startup Teriyaki & Wok. They discussed their plans for the night, knowing they wouldn’t be able to return home. With their three cats — Helly, Kato and Puurl — in the car, the family said they planned to look for a pet-friendly motel where they can stay.
“There’s a first for everything, I guess,” Meakin said. “For now, I’m just trying to think positive thoughts.”
Around 3 p.m., the Snohomish County Department of Emergency Management mistakenly sent out a countywide evacuation alert.
The department’s director, Jason Biermann, said the alert was sent out to a radius much larger than intended. The only area with an evacuation alert at the time was north of U.S. 2 between Index and Skykomish. That area was at a Level 3 mandatory evacuation status by Saturday afternoon, meaning “go now,” according to the King County Sheriff’s Office. An estimated 300 to 400 homes were affected at the time.
The town of Index was moved from a Level 1 to a Level 2 evacuation status Saturday afternoon, meaning people should be ready to leave at any moment, because there’s a “high probability of a need to evacuate.”
Around 8:30 p.m., the status rose to Level 3 and residents of Index were ordered to evacuate.
Earlier, Sky Valley Fire had sent out a public safety alert message to many cell phones in the area.
“You may need to evacuate the area, just not yet,” the alert reads. “Pack up clothing, bedding, towels, medication, checkbook, credit cards, cash, identification, address book, important phone numbers, portable radio, flashlight. Make sure you know your route out and where your pets will go.”
#Skykomish wildfire part 2. 545 am evacuation from Beckler River. pic.twitter.com/0ONoNDCU2e— Hussain Aleaziz (@haleaziz23) September 10, 2022
A slow trickle of vehicles headed west from the evacuation zone Saturday afternoon, passing through Sultan. Cars parked in town had a film of ash on their windshields.
Sky Valley Chamber of Commerce director Debbie Copple said she and a team of volunteers were prepared to offer overnight shelter for people and pets at the event center if there is need. Copple said she has access to cots and will set them up if displaced people need a place to sleep.
Carmen Valencia, an employee of the Sultan Bakery, said it had been raining ash since she got to work Saturday morning.
The bakery was busy, with people passing through who had been evacuated or had to turn around at the U.S. 2 closure.
Satellite loop of the Bolt Fire over the last 4+ hours. This is exceptionally rare for the western slopes of the central Cascades in Washington. Something we never want to see. #wawx 1:54pm 09-10-22 pic.twitter.com/mPTokrcq0M— Benjamin Jurkovich (@BenjaminJurkovi) September 10, 2022
The Snohomish County Helicopter Rescue Team searched the woods for any stranded hikers Saturday morning, but had to abort their mission due to “severe turbulence near the fire.”
Two hikers fleeing from Barclay Lake were in contact with law enforcement by cell phone Saturday, as they tried to hike out.
“From my understanding, the sheriff’s office had helicopters up above and had eyes on them,” said Peter Mongillo, spokesperson for Snohomish Regional Fire and Rescue.
As of 6 p.m., Mongillo hadn’t received word if they made it to safety.
Two helicopters were putting water on the burning forest, sourcing it from a nearby river.
“Unfortunately, it’s super smoky,” Mongillo said. “So you’ve got to keep airspace safe. When it’s super smoky, you can’t fly.”
For much of the day the fire was moving west, fueled by wind and dry vegetation.
“Currently fire crews are committing everything they have to managing the fire,” Sky Valley Fire posted on Facebook in the morning. “Information will be provided regarding any further evacuation notices. But not necessarily any fire attack progress to minimize confusion and keep information to the point. This is a dynamic situation so things are always changing.”
U.S. Forest Service fire management officer Hans Redinger said crews do not know exactly where the fire is burning north of U.S. 2, because the steep ground makes it hard or impossible to access on foot. Thick plumes of smoke and high winds were preventing helicopters from flying close enough to see where it is.
An incident command center was relocated to the Evergreen State Fairgrounds in Monroe.
Sultan Mayor Russell Wiita urged people to check the Sky Valley Fire Facebook page online for updates on the fire and evacuation announcements.
“Stay informed, and get your information directly from a fire authority,” the mayor said. “We’ve been seeing people put information out on the internet that isn’t true.”
Over in Index, Mayor Norm Johnson said most residents in town had evacuated by Saturday afternoon.
“I was told they’re starting to put water on the fire and fight it,” Johnson said. “And it seems like the wind has shifted in our favor.”
A dry, hot forecast had prompted authorities to issue red flag warnings going into the weekend — as they feared the kind of explosive fire conditions that fanned Saturday’s flames.
The Skykomish forecast for Sunday was 82 degrees, with slightly cooler temperatures but minimal chance of rain in the coming week, according to the National Weather Service.
A burn ban was in effect for all Snohomish County parks Saturday. Until further notice, only propane, gas and portable fire rings were permitted.
Air quality ranged from “Very Unhealthy” to “Moderate” in the evening around Puget Sound, according to the World Air Quality Index.
Another series of three wildfires has been burning near the Skagit-Snohomish county line since August, with 81 crew members helping with fire suppression this week. Those wildfires were sparked by lightning.
Snohomish County officials set up a website with resources at bit.ly/3LYpl9O.
Shelters for westbound evacuees:
• 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.
Camping was also available at the Evergreen State Fairgrounds, 14405 179th Ave. SE, Monroe.
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.
Ellen Dennis: 425-339-3486; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @reporterellen.
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