Highway 20 reopens, North Cascades wildfire danger eases

Highway 20 through the North Cascades National Park reopened about noon Sunday, Aug. 30, after having been closed more than a week because of wildfires in the area.

Rainfall over the weekend reduced the fires’ threat and allowed firefighters to gain the advantage on several forest fires in timber and underbrush known collectively as the Upper Skagit Complex Fire. They were sparked by lightning in early August.

Fire officials were unavailable for comment, but a statement issued Sunday said that the fire did not grow overnight Saturday, Aug. 29, and that the fires totaling 8,505 acres were nearly 70 percent contained.

Of those fires, the Goodell Fire was the largest and was listed as “full suppression” at 7,111 acres. That fire had threatened Seattle City Light electricity-generating facilities and the North Cascades National Park visitor center at the town of Newhalem.

Firefighting operations have been difficult in the remote, mountainous terrain near Newhalem, forcing firefighters into defensive operations in a successful attempt to protect critical buildings with exterior sprinkler systems and by clearing brush.

Fire crews also were protecting the North Cascades Institute’s Environmental Learning Center and other key facilities near Diablo. Fires in that area were being monitored, and their progress had slowed Sunday because of rain, higher humidity and cooler weather.

Several fire departments in Whatcom County have sent structural firefighting crews to protect buildings and infrastructure such as bridges. Some 141 personnel, including two hand crews, two helicopters, and four engine companies were working Sunday.

Cost of the fires is estimated at $1.6 million.

Meanwhile, the North Cascades National Park visitor center was slated to open Sunday, along with several campgrounds in the area. Many trails remain closed because of fire-related hazards such as fallen trees.

Washington Department of Transportation crews have cleared Highway 20 of burned trees and drainage ditches and examined burned slopes for landslide dangers.

Drivers on the North Cascades Highway are advised to expect additional road or lane closures if rainfall loosens the soil or burned debris falls onto the highway.

Reach Robert Mittendorf at 360-756-2805 or robert.mittendorf@bellinghamherald.com. Tweeting @ goMittygo and @DressLikeADuck.