Blaze grows to more than 1,000 acres; road closed for third time
In its first week, the Blue Lake Fire grew slowly — it was just 290 acres after burning for eight days — but it has nearly doubled in size since Friday, after strategic firing operations used to burn vegetation in the fire’s path to keep it from spreading ignited a spot fire on the north side of the North Cascades Highway on Saturday (Aug. 26).
As of Tuesday (Aug. 29), the fire, burning west of Washington Pass near Bridge Creek, was 1,056 acres, about one-fourth of that north of the roadway. The fire, which started on Aug. 14, was 31% contained as of Tuesday.
In its first week and a half, the fire was “creeping around” south of the highway, U.S. Forest Service Public Information Officer Austin Gonzagowski told the Methow Valley News. Fire managers decided to burn out trees and vegetation to mitigate the threat that the fire would move closer to the highway, but in the cool and damp conditions last week, fuels weren’t very receptive, he said.
With hot, dry weather in the forecast for the weekend, fire managers planned the strategic burnout to keep the fire on the south side of the road. Unfortunately, the weather changed on Saturday afternoon and strong winds pushed embers across the highway, igniting a spot fire that burned up the ridge to the north and to the sides in both directions, Gonzagowski said.
The hotter conditions were needed for the fuels to dry out sufficiently, but the winds — which can be unpredictable in the steep mountain drainages — were unexpected, Gonzagowski said.
Fire crews spent the weekend actively trying to suppress the “slopover” on the north side of the road, using water drops from aircraft. Suppression efforts have helped contain the fire, which slowed as it went up the ridge and ran into rocky terrain and minimal vegetation, Gonzagowski said.
The active fire on both sides of the road closed the North Cascades Highway on Saturday for the third time since early August. The road is closed from Newhalem (near the Sourdough Fire) to the Silver Star gate, about 51 miles in all. There was no estimated time of reopening as of Tuesday (Aug. 29), the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) said.
Firefighters have created contingency lines outside the current fire perimeter, which they are reinforcing, Gonzagowski said. The fire has burned very close to the Pacific Crest Trail, where the trail heads south along Bridge Creek. Fire crews are using Copper Creek to keep the fire from growing to the southwest. They’re also working to keep it from burning into North Cascades National Park, Gonzagowski said.
With decreased fire activity after the rainstorm that started on Tuesday, fire crews are working on removing hazard trees and rocks near the highway to prevent them from rolling onto the roadway, Gonzagowski said.
The cause of the Blue Lake Fire is under investigation.
The 6,221-acre Sourdough Fire is burning near Newhalem and Lake Diablo. It was 30% contained as of Tuesday.
Over the past week, cooler, moister weather moderated fire behavior, allowing crews to focus on mop-up and erosion control, although fire activity picked up in the hot weather over the weekend. The fire has been contained along its entire southern perimeter and crews are patrolling it, according to the Northwest Incident Management Team 8.
The team transferred management of the Sourdough Fire back to North Cascades National Park Service on Tuesday.
Crater Creek Fire
Fire behavior on the Crater Creek Fire has been mild over the past several days. The Crater Creek Fire has burned more than 5,000 acres in the eastern portion of the Pasayten Wilderness near the Canadian border. With reduced fire activity and cooler, wetter weather, management of the fire is being transitioned from a Type 3 incident management team to the Washington Department of Natural Resources Northeast Region.
Trails and campgrounds in the area remain closed. The fire was 6% contained on the U.S. side as of Tuesday.
The Crater Creek Fire was ignited by lightning in British Columbia on July 22. It has burned almost 109,000 acres in Canada.
North Cascades Highway and trail status
After heavy rain and thunderstorms on Tuesday, the National Weather Service is forecasting cool weather and showers in the North Cascades through Saturday.
WSDOT is monitoring weather and a flood watch for the area, and will evaluate the highway for debris. They may do some clearing of debris after this week’s wet weather, Northwest Region Communications Manager RB McKeon said.
WSDOT is in regular contact with the weather service and the incident management teams for the Blue Lake and Sourdough fires, McKeon said. WSDOT is committed to reopening the highway as quickly and safely as possible, she said.
Many trails are closed, including Maple Pass, Twisp Pass, and the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) from the North Cascades National Park boundary north to the junction with the Snowy Lakes Trail. There is a 70-mile detour for PCT hikers from Stehekin to the West Fork Methow trail in Lost River.