Former Public Information Officer explains Bolt Creek fire

Sunday, October 16, 2022

Sunday on Hwy 2. Photo courtesy WSDOT
By Amanda Monthei

Happy Sunday—it’s still smoky in Northwest Washington and the frustration is palpable as we approach six weeks of high AQI. With all the questions I’ve been seeing on this, I’d like to try to explain why the smoke is so bad and why we need to prepare for more smoke now

The #BoltCreekFire is just one of multiple fires actively burning in the Cascades right now, all of which are contributing to the smoke we’re seeing on the coast. An east wind yesterday didn’t help our cause and it straight up smells like fire camp outside my house right now.

The smoke sucks but it’s important to note that these fires aren’t really moving much—maybe 100-200 acres a day on the now 14k+ acre Bolt Creek. They’re also burning in remote places that aren’t conducive with putting resources on the ground.

Also, this is the west side, and fires here are fought differently than on the east side. People were demanding retardant while I was a PIO for the BCF-but on top of being a pollutant and requiring significant pilot hours, retardant just doesn’t work that well in timber.

Similar with h2o—it’s a lot of risk on the part of pilots, and for what reward? Maybe calming parts of the fire down for a few hrs before it flares back up because no ground crews could access those areas for mop up? and that’s assuming the water even makes it through the canopy!

However, water drops have been used on the edges of the Bolt Creek where firefighters can engage and actively mop up. Some small burn operations have also taken place to create clean containment lines along roads and near values, which creates a buffer should anything act up.

Another thing worth noting here is that all of these fires, and the Bolt Creek especially, are being somewhat allowed to burn (in certain places) in order to create a buffer against future fires. The more fuel that burns this year is less fuel that can burn next year!

This helps protect the US 2 corridor from future fire impacts from the north, and is especially useful as a buffer for the communities in that stretch (Index, Skykomish etc). The Bolt Creek burn area might not see fire again for decades because of the fire effects we’re seeing

The last thing I want to touch on is why it’s taking so long for this to wrap up. For one, the unseasonable lack of rain. Two, the difficult terrain in the areas where these fires are burning. But there’s one more reason that hasn’t gotten much attention lately—

And that is that the mgmt strategy used—a consumptive strategy, as it’s called—is a strategy that requires patience but has huge payoffs down the road. In this case, letting the bolt creek burn to US 2 on its own terms meant that the fire behavior was very mellow.

This means that some ground vegetation burned but the larger vegetation that holds the slope together didn’t. Allowing it to burn itself out as it approached the road resulted in less intense fire than, say, if they’d burned off the road because they wanted a black edge ASAP.

This strategy requires so much patience and people are understandably running out of it. But it will pay off, I promise. The slope above the road has vegetation that will keep it together once the rain comes, and US 2 will undoubtedly have less mudslide closures this winter.

When I was working the Bolt Creek as an info officer, it was clear that the people employing this strategy knew what the long term benefit was and also just how hard it would be to maintain patience as they allowed the fire to move at its own (admittedly very slow) pace.

But they also understood that this strategy produces smoke—and something I think everyone in the NW should be thinking about right now is how to prepare for more days like this next year and the year after.

It’s easy to think this is a fluke year but without getting too deep into fire ecology and our history of suppression, it’s veryyyyy likely we will see impacts like this during most summers/falls moving forward. The time to prepare for that reality is right now.

Proper filtration systems, air purifiers, N-95 masks etc are all good steps. Clean air shelters might be something we need to consider in places where people don’t have access to expensive filtration systems in their homes. Support for vulnerable communities will be essential.

We have to start thinking and acting like we live in a fire adapted ecosystem, because we do—despite that we’ve done a great job of hiding that fact through a century of fire suppression. Built up fuel, prolonged droughts and more people will inevitably result in more large fires

Start planning for that future now, and consider learning more about how to build fire resilience in your community/neighborhood/life. Here are some resources for that:
Amanda Monthui is a former public information officer for the Department of Natural Resources, assigned to the Bolt Creek Fire.


Jburnstin,  October 17, 2022 at 9:40 AM  

I found the article on the Bolt Creek fire very informative, and helpful to understanding fire control in Western Wa

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