Good strategic planning helped the Washington State Department of Natural Resources along with fire crews from Whatcom and Skagit counties quickly contain a wildfire Thursday evening along Interstate 5 near Bow.
Unfortunately, the fire created a backup on the freeway that, according to the Washington State Patrol, played a role in a five-car accident near milepost 233 that resulted in the death of a 22-year-old Stanwood man.
“We were mopping up last night, and we’re probably still mopping up today,” DNR public information officer Janet Pearce said of the fire. “Fortunately, we were able to nip it in the bud relatively quickly. The northwest region is really starting to get a few starts, but so far we’ve been relatively lucky containing them. Last night it was invaluable to have a helicopter in the area that allowed us to get some water on top of it.”
Before last year, Pearce said the DNR kept only one helicopter on the west side of the state. This year they have three.
“That helicopter really saved our bacon,” Pearce said. “Some strategic planning is really helping this year. Things are just so dang dry on the west side (of the state) — almost as dry as the east side.”
South Whatcom Fire Authority and Whatcom County Fire District 18 crews, who were called into to assist firefighters from Skagit County, got a first-hand demonstration of just how big a difference the extra resources in the air can make.
The Whatcom County crews were tasked with battling a northern finger of the fire, District 18 Chief Omar Mejia said.
“Engine 28 did a good job of attacking the northern slope, “ Mejia said, “but when that DNR helicopter came in and dropped water near us, it made a big difference. It made a couple of drops in a couple of different areas.”
Mejia estimated Whatcom County crews were on scene about three hours before passing it off to the DNR for overnight mop-up duty.
The fire was limited to about four acres, and the cause is still under investigation. Dry conditions in the region definitely added to the danger, Pearce said, who added that west side crews have been “extremely lucky” so far this year.
“We’re hoping we don’t get that big, tragic one,” Pearce said. “We’re a little worried about the dry cold front that’s supposed to blow through the area tonight (Friday). Any wind could help existing fires spread.”
The fire, which in places was only feet away from Interstate 5, also caused some backups coming out of Burlington.
One of those backups played a role in Thursday’s fatal accident.
According to the Washington State Patrol report on the incident, all five cars were heading northbound at 11:13 p.m. when they encountered stopped traffic. A red 2000 Chevrolet Silverado driven by Drake E. Michael, 20 of Mount Vernon, reportedly hit a green 2002 Ford Focus driving by Chase A. Blair, 22 of Stanwood, from behind.
The accident caused three other cars, including a silver 2008 Subaru Legacy driven by 46-year-old Guy D. Shefner of Bellingham, to hit each other, according to the report.
Blair was killed in the accident, while Michael, who reportedly was not wearing a seat belt, also was injured and was taken to Skagit Valley Hospital. The other three drivers, including Shefner, were all wearing their seatbelts, according to the report, and did not suffer any serious injuries.
The State Patrol is investigating the cause of the wreck, though Trooper Travis Shearer said preliminary analysis shows the Silverado collided with the Focus at freeway speed.