Wildfire threatening homes in Chuckanut Mountains

Fire burns Wednesday morning along a steep ridge in the Chuckanut Mountains.
Fire burns Wednesday morning along a steep ridge in the Chuckanut Mountains. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

A wildfire burning since Tuesday afternoon in the Chuckanut Mountains grew to 60 acres as wind picked up overnight and is threatening four homes in a slow advance, fire officials said Wednesday afternoon.

More than 120 firefighters from local, state and federal agencies are working to contain the fire, which is burning in steep terrain near an old clearcut around the Burnout Trail south of Larrabbee State Park. Firefighting aircraft and bulldozers are joining the effort Wednesday, said Michael Krueger, public information officer for the Burnout Road Fire.

“The fire is what we call slope- and wind-driven,” Kreuger said. “It’s moving quickly upslope,” but not so quickly otherwise, he said. “It’s moving south, driven by winds from the north.”

“It’s in draws and creeping. It’s not a wall of flame,” Krueger added.

Krueger said Fire Boss aircraft will be used, which are single-engine planes about the size of a World War II fighter, only on pontoons. They can drop 600 gallons of water on a fire with speed and accuracy, he said.

The aircraft will be taking water from Lake Samish.

More crews are headed to the remote area about 6 miles southeast of the Lost Lake parking lot on Chuckanut Drive, where the fire is burning in slash, heavy brush and timber. South Whatcom Fire Authority Chief Dave Ralston said initial reports of smoke were confusing because smoke from wildfires in British Columbia is blowing south into Whatcom County.

Fire crews initially staged equipment and personnel at the Lost Lake parking lot, which was closed to the public Wednesday afternoon. Trails in the area, which includes Larrabee State Park, remain open, said Ranger Amber Forest, park manager. She said recreational fires are banned in the backcountry, but are allowed in approved fire rings at the campground near the waterfront.

Meanwhile, Krueger said officials are moving their base from the Lost Lake parking lot to Fairhaven Middle School in Bellingham.

He said the multi-agency firefighting effort will require additional staff to provide food and shelter for 150 firefighters or more, who will need morning and evening meals and lunch in the field – as well as a place to pitch tents and sleep.

“The idea is to get as many feet on the ground to put out the fire as quickly as we can,” Krueger said, adding he expects firefighting efforts will continue for several days.

South Whatcom Fire Authority crews scouted the fire at 3 to 4 acres about 6 p.m. Tuesday. By Wednesday morning, the fire had grown to 30 acres, then 60 in the afternoon, Ralston said.

“Hand crews are working to cut out fire lines,” Ralston said, adding South Whatcom crews investigated reports of smoke Tuesday afternoon and grew more concerned as calls to 911 began trickling in from Skagit County.

No injuries have been reported. The fire’s cause was unknown immediately.

Krueger said the Burnout Road Fire is a Type 3 incident on the federal government’s five-step complexity scale – Type 1 is the worst fire, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Ralston said the homes being threatened are on Chuckanut Ridge Drive in Skagit County. They aren’t in immediate danger, unless the wind picks up, he said.

“It’s really just a precaution at this point,” Ralston said.

Krueger said firefighters have assessed the homes in the fire’s path and made plans to protect them if necessary. Each homeowner has maintained a defensible space around their homes to national Firewise program standards, and they each have a 10,000-gallon reservoir for firefighting operations since the area is not served by hydrants, he added.

South Whatcom Fire – which serves Chuckanut Drive, Lake Samish, Yew Street Road, Geneva and Sudden Valley – was supplying state Department of Natural Resources and other crews with water from a South Whatcom engine that also has “pump and roll” capability for fighting wildfires.

DNR reported via Twitter message that three helicopters are available for water drops if necessary.

“We have about 5 engines and a few hand crews right now but that may change today (Wednesday),” said Janet Pearce, DNR public information officer.

Burnout Trail is popular with runners and bicyclists.

The Bellingham Herald reporter Robert Mittendorf is a volunteer firefighter with South Whatcom Fire Authority.

Robert Mittendorf: 360-756-2805, @BhamMitty