SULTAN — Skykomish River valley residents have known for a long time that their stretch of U.S. 2 was a looming problem.
With its aging asphalt, narrow shoulders and washed-out bridges, the main corridor connecting rural Snohomish County towns to critical services is overdue for improvements. The nearly 15,000-acre Bolt Creek fire, which raged near the highway for weeks starting Sept. 10, brought new urgency to questions that have long been on the back burner.
At a roundtable discussion Thursday in Sultan, local officials from around the valley sought support from federal lawmakers for an ambitious overhaul of U.S. 2 that planners say could save lives if — or when — another emergency threatens their communities.
U.S. Reps. Kim Schrier and Suzan DelBene and U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, along with state and county lawmakers, met with emergency managers and the mayors of small towns at Bubba’s Roadhouse, a bar and grill in Sultan. The small, family-owned operation usually gets most of its traffic from travelers on U.S. 2, but it has seen a dramatic decline in revenue during weeks of intermittent closures along the highway, said owner Bubba Deach. He’s expecting his troubles will only get worse as fire seasons intensify in the coming years.
“We lost probably 75% of our normal earnings in September compared to last year, which were already low because of COVID,” Deach told the lawmakers. “I’m absolutely worried for our future if things keep going this way, and with climate change it seems like that’s a done deal. We’ve seen this coming.”
Other businesses fared even worse as visitors canceled hotel stays and camping trips, creating cascading losses for valley residents who make their living on tourism. Debbie Copple, director of the Sky Valley Chamber of Commerce, said she helped locals fill out emergency impact statements in the hope of convincing Gov. Jay Inslee to declare an official emergency for the region. Such a declaration would free up state and federal funds to help those impacted by the fire, Copple said. Inslee’s office did not immediately respond to The Daily Herald’s request for comment.
Beyond the crushing impact on local businesses, local mayors expressed concern that the faulty highway could impede evacuation and emergency services in the event of a future fire like Bolt Creek. Index Mayor Norm Johnson, whose town of 156 people was evacuated last month due to fire risk, told lawmakers he worried a more dire emergency in the future wouldn’t go as smoothly.
Johnson said the Index-Galena Road, a winding dirt road leading from Index north to national forest lands and the Wild Sky Wilderness, could provide a necessary route for evacuations and emergency services for locals who live in remote communities like Baring and Grotto. In years past, the road connected Index to Skykomish via Beckler Road, but it has been closed to the public since it was washed out by floods in 2006. It’s expected to reopen next summer.
Sky Valley Fire Chief Eric Andrews said his “worst fear” in the early days of Bolt Creek was that it would spread far enough to require evacuation of larger towns. If everyone along the corridor had to go at once, he wasn’t optimistic about the outcome. Fire crews barely had enough room to work along the highway as it was.
“Imagine if Sultan and Gold Bar had to get out at the same time as Index did,” Andrews told lawmakers. “That highway would be a mess. I don’t think it could handle it the way we need it to.”
Andrews emphasized that while the worst is over, Bolt Creek is still burning, though it’s no longer a real threat. Despite recent rains, the blaze has survived in scattered pockets where tree canopies prevented underbrush from getting wet.
Sultan Mayor Russell Wiita presented a plan to improve the highway along the “choke point” where it passes through Sultan. The plan would see three new roundabouts and widened bridges within Sultan city limits, which Wiita said would make a difference in everyday traffic for commuters as well as reduce congestion in the event of an emergency.
Wiita said city officials hoped to coordinate with the state Department of Transportation to use dedicated U.S. 2 safety dollars. If all goes to plan, Wiita said, agencies will begin requesting funding for the project in 2023.
Lawmakers in attendance assured attendees that improving U.S. 2 would be a top priority as they returned to Congress, and praised the Sultan plan as a step in the right direction. Cantwell, who has represented the state since 2001, told attendees the Bolt Creek fire had given new immediacy to the need for statewide infrastructure improvements.
“Highway 2 is a critical corridor for everyone in Washington, not just the folks who’ve been impacted in the valley,” Cantwell said. “Especially as I-90 becomes more and more congested, the need to mitigate impacts for everyone becomes more urgent.”
Cantwell said she sent a letter to the U.S. Forest Service on Thursday asking the agency to prioritize funding for relief in the Bolt Creek burn scar. With the support of federal resources, along with state and local efforts, the region will have a better chance at mitigating existing issues before the next fire, Cantwell said.
State Department of Transportation regional administrator Brian Nielsen told attendees the highway was “open for business” and that no immediate safety risks were apparent due to fire damage on the road itself, aside from some guard rails that burned away. The chance of mudslides and debris flows near Bolt Creek’s burn scar will remain throughout the winter, though, and Nielsen said road crews were already preparing for a busy season with a “24/7 presence” on the highway.
“But it’s somewhat a Mother Nature problem,” Nielsen said. “This kind of fire is somewhat unprecedented on this side of the Cascades. There is only so much we as people can do to prepare.”
Riley Haun: 425-339-3192; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @RHaunID.
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