Whatcom County firefighters continue to help as wildfires burn near electricity-generating facilities

Fire burns in timber near Newhalem on Sunday, Aug. 23. Firefighters from Whatcom County and elsewhere were assigned to protect buildings in the town.
Fire burns in timber near Newhalem on Sunday, Aug. 23. Firefighters from Whatcom County and elsewhere were assigned to protect buildings in the town. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Wildfires near the town of Newhalem in the upper Skagit River Valley continue to burn, but they posed no immediate threat to facilities and buildings on Sunday, Aug. 23.

A statement issued by the National Park Service on Sunday morning said eight fires of a total 3,900 acres are burning in the area, known collectively as the Upper Skagit Complex Fire. The lightning-sparked fires have been burning since early August.

Of those, the 3,218-acre Goodell Fire near Newhalem remained of the most concern. Fire-suppression efforts focused there include 157 personnel, including various wildland firefighting teams and a helicopter crew.

Three structural fire engine companies, including firefighters from Whatcom County, have been assigned to protect the town of Newhalem, which includes a Seattle City Light electricity-generating station and the North Cascades National Park Visitor Center.

Bellingham Fire Department, North Whatcom Fire & Rescue and South Whatcom Fire Authority sent personnel Sunday, said Chief Dave Ralston of South Whatcom Fire Authority. He said Bellingham and South Whatcom firefighters had been assisting since Thursday and both departments were planning to supply crews daily through next week on rotating shifts, joining firefighters from Skagit and Snohomish counties.

On Friday, firefighters at Newhalem strategically placed large-diameter hose lines — capable of pumping several hundred gallons of water per minute — around the Gorge Powerhouse and other critical buildings so that they could be used if the fire made a downhill run toward the town. Additional smaller hand lines were deployed. On Sunday, firefighters focused more on fire prevention, Ralston said.

“They’ve been limbing trees and clearing brush,” he said. He said the crews told him that the fires appeared to be turning downslope. Conditions were described as hot and dry, with moderate winds.

Fire also was burning near the North Cascades Institute’s Environmental Learning Center, a field campus east of Newhalem near the town of Diablo. A statement issued Thursday canceled events at the center indefinitely, but said the buildings were under no immediate threat.

All lanes of Highway 20 — eastbound and westbound — are closed until further notice from Thornton Creek Road at milepost 118 to the Skagit County line at milepost 157.

Meanwhile, Whatcom County skies remained hazy for a second day Sunday, as smoke from major fires in Eastern Washington drifted toward the coast, according to a statement from the National Weather Service in Seattle. Whatcom County skies began to clear late Sunday afternoon.

Northwest Clean Air Agency measurements from the Bellingham area on Sunday afternoon hovered between the moderate and unhealthy stages, and people susceptible to breathing problems were advised to stay indoors.

Reach Robert Mittendorf at 360-756-2805 or robert.mittendorf@bellinghamherald.com. Mittendorf is a volunteer firefighter with South Whatcom Fire Authority.