INDEX — The Bolt Creek fire evacuation order was lifted Tuesday afternoon for Index, a town of about 170 people.
And a level 2 evacuation warning, meaning “be ready to go”, has been downgraded for those between Zeke’s Drive-In (east of Gold Bar) and Index. The level 1 warning, meaning “be prepared”, has been lifted from Zeke’s at the Gold Bar town limits.
The announcement came at 4:45 p.m. after the Bolt Creek Fire grew overnight Tuesday to more than 9,400 acres, with authorities saying it is now 5% contained.
That was up from nearly 8,000 acres on Monday, with a 2% lockdown.
However, the fire’s growth doesn’t mean its perimeter has swelled, said Rachel Lipsky, a spokeswoman for the North West Incident Management Team working on the blaze. Instead, the area gains reflect more burning inside the perimeter that had not yet caught fire.
Lipsky compared it to dropping olive oil into a saucepan. All the oil is inside the pan, but not the whole pan is covered. It’s just that now more of the pan is splattered with oil.
The upcoming weather could be a boon to firefighting efforts as wet conditions and light winds slow the spread. Meanwhile, the outdoor burning ban for unincorporated Snohomish County was updated Tuesday to include recreational fires. This also includes Lake Stevens, Mill Creek, Monroe and Sultan. The ban took effect immediately and will last indefinitely.
Only one outbuilding was reported damaged by the fire. More details on the damage were not available. No injuries were reported.
And US 2 remained closed to traffic for a 17-mile stretch from Gold Bar to Skykomish. The state Department of Transportation did not have an estimate for reopening.
Given the complexity of the terrain and proximity to towns, the fire management team was upgraded Tuesday morning from a more local Western Washington team to Lipsky’s team, primarily from Washington and Oregon. About 380 people took part in the ongoing operation.
On the east side, fire crews sought to use Forest Service Road 6510 and Beckler Road to control the blaze. The flames remained on the hill above the town of Skykomish. Firefighters were looking to use multiple roads as a buffer to keep the fire away from the city.
On Monday, the fire burned atop a tunnel near Money Creek Campground, east of Grotto. In Baring and Grotto, crews finished protecting structures with pipe laying while waiting for the fire. Buckets of water were dropped from a helicopter on Monday to slow the spread.
On the western perimeter, crews were using Forest Service Road 6022, also known as Heybrook Lookout Road, to direct the fire away from Index, a town of about 170 people. Other controls were to be installed on Index-Galena Road and to the north.
And the containment area to the south was US 2.
“We all unite”
On Tuesday afternoon, Index Mayor Norm Johnson and City Maintenance Officer Sean “Ribs” Horst chatted on Avenue A. Index’s first official dog, Sage, also made an appearance.
Johnson stayed in the city all weekend, he said, to help protect the city in case the fire got closer. When residents of Index were ordered to evacuate on Saturday evening, the mayor said residents of eight homes chose to stay.
“We’ve got a really good city: we’re used to flooding, we’re used to heavy snow,” Johnson said. “I wouldn’t want to be anywhere but here in the event of a disaster. We all come together to do whatever it takes to help a neighbor.
Before the announcement, the mayor hoped authorities would lower the evacuation warning from Level 3 to Level 2. He said evacuees were starting to run out of the house.
Even with the Level 3 “go now” warning in place, many had already returned to Index. Longtime resident Joel Zimmerman estimated that about 80% of evacuees were back in town by Tuesday afternoon.
Zimmerman elected to evacuate on Saturday and pitched a tent at his Snohomish store. He went to Index on Tuesday to collect clean clothes and tend to his garden.
“I think we’ll be back tomorrow,” Zimmerman said. “The fire is moving the other way now.”
On Sunday morning, the smoke in Index was so thick that observers could not see Heybrook Ridge – just east of the town. On Tuesday, the air had cleared noticeably. The low clouds and crisp air felt like early fall.
Index School District Superintendent Brad Jernberg visited the city Monday to check out school buildings and vehicles. The district canceled classes Monday and Tuesday. Jernberg said there would also be no school on Wednesday.
School officials were deciding “day to day” when to reopen schools. Jernberg said that will depend on weather, fire containment and road conditions.
“It may take a little time. … Some of my staff live towards Baring, and they have been evacuated,” he said.
“A Big Torch”
When Merlin Halverson’s wife heard about the wildfire, she began packing clothes and pictures to get out of Gold Bar. But her husband, the longtime District 5 fire chief who retired in late 2021, wasn’t worried.
He knows that fires like Bolt Creek will not be unique. He is glad he was able to retire before the wildfires hit western Washington.
“We’ve seen this coming for years with climate change,” Halverson said Tuesday. “I just think it’s going to be part of the new normal here.”
Sky Valley Fire Chief Eric Andrews said his mostly volunteer department had been preparing for such a fire for some time.
“We knew it was a matter of if, not when,” he said Tuesday.
And with more people flocking to the area, there’s more chance for mistakes, Andrews said.
The blaze is unlikely to have been caused by lightning, said state Department of Natural Resources spokesman Thomas Kyle-Milward.
“I think there’s speculation as to what caused it,” Kyle-Milward said, “but the official designation is still under investigation.”
The fire was initially spread over 20 acres, Andrews said. When King County firefighters arrived, they reported a large column of smoke. They couldn’t see the “head” of the fire – the line that moves rapidly with the direction of the wind.
“It was pretty obvious,” he said, “we had a pretty big fire that was going to go a long way.”
But he feels lucky that the weather has changed. Had the dry and windy conditions remained the same as Saturday, he believes it would have overtaken Index and been “just a big blowtorch” for Gold Bar.
Instead, the Skykomish River Valley can expect temperatures in the 60s for the next few days, with light easterly winds and high humidity, said National Weather hydrologist Brent Bowers. Duty in Seattle. This is in contrast to conditions on Saturday, when it was dry with westerly winds causing ash rain 40 miles out over Puget Sound.
There was a possibility of thunderstorms near the blaze Tuesday evening, with a slight possibility that could ignite new flames, he said.
Over the weekend there is a chance of light rain on the fire. That probably won’t be enough to turn it off, but it would dampen it, Bowers said.
“The weather forecast is on our side this time,” Andrews said.
Herald reporter Mallory Gruben contributed to this report.
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