Campers evacuated after fire erupts on Portage Island

A fire on Portage Island is pictured from Lummi Island on Saturday, July 4, near Bellingham, Washington.
A fire on Portage Island is pictured from Lummi Island on Saturday, July 4, near Bellingham, Washington. The Bellingham Herald

A fast-moving fire on the south end of Portage Island forced holiday campers to evacuate.

No one was injured in the fire, which had burned an estimated five acres of forestland on the undeveloped island by 6:30 p.m. on Saturday, July 4. Multiple reports of smoke and flames started coming into 911 dispatch at 4:03 p.m.

“It’s burned from the beach on the south part of the island up into the trees,” said Bill Hewett, assistant chief for Fire District 8 in Marietta, which was the first fire crew on the scene.

After climbing quickly up a steep slope, the fire began to creep through timber on flatter terrain, Department of Natural Resources fire spokesman Chris Hankey said. DNR took over command of the fire from the Marietta fire district.

Smoke from the fire could be seen from Lummi and Eliza islands, Bellingham and Ferndale.

About 40 or 50 campers were on the island when the fire started, Hewett said. Some of them had driven onto the island using the land bridge at low tide but found it difficult to leave the way they had come because the tide had risen.

People were evacuated on four-wheel drive vehicles that could navigate the land bridge, Hewett said. Others left on private boats.

The U.S. Coast Guard deployed its Bellingham-based response boat and an 87-foot patrol boat, but they were not needed for evacuations, Coast Guard spokesman George Degener said.

Several campers remained on the island at a safe location as of 6:30 p.m. Saturday, with private boats ready in case the remaining campers needed to evacuate, Hewett said.

The island, about 1 1/2 square miles off Lummi Peninsula, has no services or roads, and no ferry service. As part of Lummi Reservation, the island was not subject to a countywide burn ban.

The cause of the fire wasn’t immediately known.

“At this point it’s way too early to speculate,” Hewett said. “Right now, we’re not even able to speculate where the fire started.”

“I can tell you, it’s a piece of land with no power, and we haven’t had any lightning today,” Hewett said. “I can assure you one way or another there was some human involvement in the cause, but whether it’s going to be fireworks or a campfire or some other ignition source, it’s something the investigators are going to have to look into.”

Firefighting was to begin in earnest at first light on Sunday, July 5, Hankey said. Three DNR engines were on the scene Saturday evening, and a hand crew was on the way.

“There’s going to be a lot of fire line building work that’ll need to be done,” Hankey said.

Reach Ralph Schwartz at 360-715-2289 or ralph.schwartz@bellinghamherald.com.