Smoke from the Bolt Creek fire silhouettes mountain ridges and tree layers just outside of Index on Monday. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Smoke from the Bolt Creek fire silhouettes mountain ridges and tree layers just outside of Index on Monday. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Even as flames are quelled, slopes of Bolt Creek fire remain dangerous

Trees and boulders could come down on steep hillsides scarred by fire. Rain could increase threats by loosening soils.

INDEX — Though flames were no longer chewing up acres of forestland and steep hillsides along U.S. 2 on Friday, the danger from the Bolt Creek fire is far from over.

There’s a looming threat in the charred area of large trees and rocks becoming uprooted and dislodged, then tumbling down onto the highway. In stretches with steep slopes, the heat of the fire and strong winds are making the ground less stable, as will precipitation in the coming days and weeks.

On Wednesday, a large burned tree, nearly 50 inches in diameter, crashed down onto the highway and through a guard rail. No one was hurt. It could have been calamitous had cars been traveling on the road.

But the highway is closed to the public east of Index-Galena Road and at the intersection of the highway and North Fifth Street in Skykomish. It will remain so all weekend.

There is no reopening date. Fire officials will meet on Monday morning to discuss reopening the road.

“The flames aren’t the issue now,” Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers said Friday after a briefing from fire officials. “The whole fire area is a very steep slope. It was forested. Now it’s not.”

Certainly everyone wants the road opened, but not until it is safe, he said. The state Department of Transportation will ultimately make the decision.

Several elected officials took part in the briefing including U.S. Reps. Suzan DelBene and Kim Schrier. King County Executive Dow Constantine, Sultan Mayor Russell Wiita, Gold Bar Mayor Steve Yarbrough and representatives of U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell also attended, said Rachel Lipsky, spokesperson for the Northwest Incident Management Team.

The Bolt Creek fire began just after 5 a.m. Sept. 10, along its namesake creek just north of Skykomish and west of Beckler River, turning skies reddish and sending ash cascading down upon streets and cars across a large swath of Snohomish County.

It grew rapidly to 8,000 acres in the ensuing 48 hours and reached 9,440 acres with 5% containment by early in the week. Those figures haven’t changed for several days as fire activity has slowed. Some personnel have been released as the need decreases for their services, fire officials said.

“The whole picture has turned around,” Lipsky said. “The direct threat of fire is stabilizing.”

The strategy is to flank the fire and direct it toward the north, into the Wild Sky Wilderness. Crews are using heavy equipment to reinforce containment lines on the east and west edges, work that could be done in two to three days, she said. U.S. 2 is the southern edge.

Other crews were focused on ensuring slopes are stable and reducing the threat to the communities and the highway from falling rocks, boulders and trees, she said.

To date, 439 people have been deployed in response to the fire, according to the incident command center. This includes personnel on 39 engines, as well as four helicopters, three masticators, two water tenders and several hand crews building fire lines.

The cause of the fire remained under investigation Friday. There have been no reported injuries and only one structure, described as an out-building, damaged, according to information from the incident command center.

Updates are available on the Bolt Creek Fire Information Facebook page or InciWeb.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @dospueblos.

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