Firefighters struggle to halt blazes in North Cascades’ terrain

At night, Alan Ferrara can hear trees falling in the forest. If he looks across the Skagit River from his home, he can see flames.

Ferrara, like many other Seattle City Light employees, lives in Newhalem, which has been surrounded the last week by the wildfires known collectively as the Upper Skagit Complex Fire.

Newhalem is also home to the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project, which supplies about a quarter of Seattle’s power.

However, “that’s not happening right now,” Ferrara said.

The Goodell Fire, by far the largest of the fires in the area, has grown to more than 5,500 acres and has downed power lines around Newhalem. Crews in the area have not been able to access the power lines to repair them.

Even though the fire is still growing, firefighters have so far been successful preventing the flames from reaching any structures.

The fire, triggered by lightning Aug. 10, started to spread quickly on Wednesday, Aug. 19. Ferrara, a Seattle City Light maintenance manager, said he watched it move from one side of town to the other within 20 minutes. It crossed the Skagit River near the Gorge Powerhouse, and firefighters along with Seattle City Light employees fought the flames and prevented it from reaching the building.

It has forced evacuations in Newhalem and Diablo, including the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center and the North Cascades Visitor Center. Ross Lake Resort also has been evacuated.

Highway 20 is closed from Bacon Creek through Rainy Pass, as the guardrails along the highway have been hit repeatedly by large boulders and debris falling from the surrounding mountains.

In total, the fires making up the Upper Skagit Complex Fire have grown to 6,655 acres.

Of those who have been evacuated, many have been Seattle City Light employees who live in Diablo.

Tim Lorkowski, 56, is an engineer with Seattle City Light. He said he had to leave his home in Diablo at about 4:30 p.m. Aug. 19 when the town was evacuated. There was heavy smoke around his house, and he was only able to take a couple items with him.

“I didn’t anticipate it being this severe for this long,” Lorkowski said.

The fire is growing from all sides but is most actively moving to the south. Because of the steep terrain, firefighters can’t put a fire line around it to stop it from spreading. Planes can’t help because the area is too smoky, said Dennis Godfrey, a spokesman for the fire management team.

“This fire has been 0 percent contained,” Godfrey said, “and it probably will be for a while.”

Since the terrain prevents firefighters from containing the fire, they are doing all they can to protect assets. So far, they’ve been successful with that, said Matt Call, a division supervisor for the Upper Skagit Complex incident management team.

For example, firefighters were still monitoring flames along the Trail of the Cedars, which runs along the south side of the Skagit River. Old-growth trees along the trail have burned from the inside out, and trees continue to fall throughout the day.

Those are the trees Ferrara can hear falling from his house.

Only authorized personnel — about 180 firefighters and 80 Seattle City Light employees — are allowed in Newhalem. Ferrara said both groups have been working together, with some City Light employees now serving as full-time EMTs to help out. Some people from the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center, which has mostly been evacuated, have been cooking meals for firefighters, Ferrara said.

Call, a firefighter from Utah who travels with fire management teams across the nation, said it may be a while before things change. With a lack of resources and the steep terrain in the North Cascades, there are simply not a lot of options at their disposal to stop the fire from spreading.

“This is probably one of the least forgiving places I’ve been,” Call said.

Reach Wilson Criscione at 360-756-2803 or wilson.criscione@bellinghamherald.com.

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