Mudslides, falling debris next big worry after Bolt Creek Fire

Sep 17, 2022, 8:38 AM | Updated: Sep 19, 2022, 9:42 am

bolt creek fire...

(KIRO 7)

(KIRO 7)

The Bolt Creek Fire is looking much better this weekend due to the efforts of different fire agencies around Puget Sound coming together, along with cool, wet weather and an end to high winds.

At a little more than 14, square miles — about the size of Mercer Island — the fire’s perimeter has not grown all week. The fall-like weather over the last few days is a marked change from the hot, dry temperatures and strong winds that allowed the fire to ignite so quickly last weekend.

But the towns of Baring and Grotto remain under Level 3 Get Out Now evacuations, and the stretch of Highway 2 between Index and Skykomish is still closed — and set to stay that way through at least the weekend. The towns of Index and Skykomish are at Level 1 Get Ready evacuation levels.

Sky Valley Fire Captain Brandon Vargas was at the frontlines of the Bolt Creek Fire from last Saturday — the day it began — through Thursday. While he witnessed an entire hillside in flames last weekend, the fire is spottier now as it burns through layers of underbrush.

Bolt Creek Fire increases in size, but perimeter remains the same

“There are still a lot of hotspots up there east of Grotto … between Grotto and Skykomish, the fire actually made it down to the highway in a lot of spots in there,” Vargas described. “You pretty much see all the underbrush burnt away.”

He said there is now much less danger to homes, as crews have held the fire back and have protected the towns along Highway 2 with dozer lines.

But even as the flames stop their spread, firefighters worry about another risk: fire-scorched trees toppling over and falling down the hillside onto cars, homes, or people. This happened Wednesday night near Skykomish, when a large tree skidded down the mountainside onto Highway 2 and destroyed a guardrail. Thankfully, no firefighters were injured.

“We’ve had some trees come down, so there are some that have been fire damaged that we’ve had to have crews go in and remove and lay those down so they don’t fall on the highway,” Vargas said.

And while the rain is helping keep the fire at bay, it also brings with it the potential for mudslides that can swiftly carry away all the debris loosened by the fire.

“We hopefully won’t have too bad of mudslides. That’s kind of what happens on the east side of the mountains when a lot of areas get super devastated by fire and then it rains heavily and the hillsides come down,” Vargas said.

It is for this reason that the area will remain closed off for a while.

“Obviously, that’s a big focus for the team, is to get the highway opened up and try to get things opened up as normal as they can be … but we’re focused on making sure nobody gets hit by a tree,” Vargas said.

Overall, Vargas said, the firefighting effort has been successful. While the fire has burned relatively close to several towns, no people have been hurt and no homes have been lost. Vargas attributes it to his colleagues and to Mother Nature.

“Firefighters knew their jobs, they knew what to do, and they put it into place,” he said. “We were successful with some luck of the weather and the winds that died down, and we didn’t lose any structures or any people.”

Vargas also credits the experience he and his fellow crew members have had fighting wildfires in Eastern Washington through state mobilizations. Since fires on the western side of the Cascades are a rarity, Vargas said the skills learned in those previous fires in other parts of the state were vital for the firefighters to stay calm in a scene as dangerous as a forest in flames.

“When you’re in that situation, you don’t really think about, ‘Oh my God, this is bad and I’m scared,’ and stuff like that. I didn’t really have time to do any of that,” Vargas said. “It was just, I knew what tasks needed to get done, and the crews knew what needed to get done, and worked well with multiple agencies from King, Snohomish, and Skagit Counties.”

Follow Nicole Jennings on Twitter or email her here

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Mudslides, falling debris next big worry after Bolt Creek Fire