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What it’s like to evacuate from a forest fire: the view from Index

caption: Smoke from the Bolt Creek Fire is shown on Monday, September 12, 2022, along Reiter Road outside of Index.
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1 of 8 Smoke from the Bolt Creek Fire is shown on Monday, September 12, 2022, along Reiter Road outside of Index.
KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Shortly before evacuating their home near the mountain town of Index, Washington, Jay Held said he and his wife, Virginia Held, felt sick to their stomachs.

“Kind of freaking out a little bit,” Jay Held said in a video he recorded Saturday afternoon outside their home along the Skykomish River under sickly yellow skies.

The western edge of the Bolt Creek Fire was advancing through steep forests of tall trees just a few miles upriver.

“It would really suck to lose everything we have worked so hard for,” he said.

The smoke turned the sun into a pale orange orb as ash and bits of vegetation fell from the sky.

“I've never seen this type of thing where there's needles and burnt pine needles in the river like this,” he said. “Kind of spooky.”

“It was just raining down debris all day long,” Virginia Held said. “It kind of sounded like it was sprinkling all day, but it was it was pine needles and stuff from the fire.”

About 3 p.m. on Saturday, an emergency alert blared out of phones throughout Snohomish County, recommending people prepare to evacuate. Sky Valley Fire quickly sent out a correction explaining that the recommendation was aimed at Index only, a town of about 200 residents 40 miles east of Seattle.

At the Helds’ home, just across the river from Index and outside the recommended evacuation area, they debated what to do.

“As a fire gets closer, you're going to have hotter ash falling,” Jay Held said. “Right now, it's not really like embers. It's just big chunks of stuff falling and ash.”

“Wind is blowing from the east towards us also,” he said. “So we're going to really keep an eye on this throughout the day and into the night.”

The Helds packed their possessions and got ready to leave.

“Hopefully this turns out a lot better than it feels,” Jay Held said.

“We were just debating because we have 11 chickens that we didn't want to leave there,” Virginia Held said.

At 8:30 p.m., Index residents got another emergency alert, urging them to evacuate immediately.

By 10:30 p.m., the Helds and their chickens were on their way just downriver to the town of Startup.

By Sunday afternoon, the fire that was first reported at 5:15 on Saturday morning had grown to 7,600 acres.

On Sunday and again on Monday, emergency officials said half of Index had ignored the evacuation orders.

“We are asking that those folks do heed the warning to leave because in the event that a fire does come and encroach on that property, it's going to be difficult to not just deal with the property but also deal with civilians and citizens in that area,” Snohomish Regional Fire and Rescue spokesperson Peter Mongillo said.

The Helds pitched a tent at an all-volunteer emergency camp at Startup’s events center.

“It's a good location,” Virginia Held said. “We didn't want to be too far from home, even though there's a bigger area at the fairgrounds.”

The Red Cross also set up a larger evacuation shelter farther down U.S. Highway 2 at the Evergreen State Fairgrounds in the city of Monroe.

Debbie Copple with the Sky Valley Chamber has been coordinating the effort in Startup to give evacuees hot meals, bathrooms, and a safe place to camp or sleep in their vehicles.

She downplayed her own role.

“All I did, I made a list of food of what we were going to serve for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and our community has just stepped up in a way you can’t even believe," Copple said. "People have just gone all out.”

Virginia Held painted a different picture of Copple’s role: “She’s been here the entire time, cooking and feeding anybody that needs food or a place to stay.”

Copple said Sunday the smoke in Startup was “terrible.”

“I’ve been trying to get masks on everybody,” she said. “We’ve got a good supply of the fancy N95s. All of these things were brought to us for free.”

“Our people are very capable out here in the Sky Valley, and everybody just pitches in and takes care of each other,” Copple said.

She said Sunday she expected 20 or 30 people to stay at the events center: in RVs, motor homes of all kinds, and tents.

“A lot of them don’t want to go to Monroe,” Copple said. “They want to stay as close to home as they can.”

Index evacuee Sarah Jay Knauss wound up parking the converted school bus she lives in at Zeke’s Drive-In, a burger joint on Highway 2 just outside the evacuation zone.

"My rig has a slight coolant leak, so we didn't really want to go very far,” Knauss said.

Knauss said she was worried about the chickens, ducks, and quails she had to leave behind.

“Even the smoke alone is hard for small birds, you know, ‘canary in the coal mine,’” she said.

She said she was glad her house is on wheels.

“We woke up in the morning, and the owners were there, and they came by and just said, ‘We're not opening today, you guys can stay,’" Knauss said. "They opened up their bathrooms for us, and we were able to stay that night and the next night. It was awesome."

An unusual fire

Fire experts say hot, dry winds coming over the Cascades helped fuel the Bolt Creek Fire, along with exceptionally hot weather in Western Washington.

Snohomish County spokesperson Peter Mongillo said it’s been a difficult fire to control.

“The terrain is really, really steep and there's lots of timber in that area,” Mongillo said. “It's not really safe for crews to go hiking up into that area to try and fight it on the ground.”

Winds shifted to the east on Sunday, giving firefighters a break as they defended the town of Index, just to the west, and lessening the Seattle area’s exposure to the unhealthy smoke from the fire.

The Bolt Creek Fire started about 40 miles east of Seattle on Saturday, the same day Seattle set a new record for the most days over 90 degrees in a single summer (13).

Forest fires are nothing new to Western Washington, though they burn much less frequently than on the drier, eastern side of the state. An old-growth forest on the Cascades’ west side might burn once every 500 to 1,000 years.

But forest ecologists say when hot, dry conditions prevail, the dense, lush forests found on the west side of the Cascades have lots of fuel that can quickly erupt into very large fires.

“During this last weekend, we had temperatures in the 90s, we had relative humidity in the teens, and we had east winds definitely blowing those fires,” University of Washington forest fire ecologist Brian Harvey said.

Harvey said with wildfires occurring so infrequently west of the Cascades, it is difficult to tell whether their frequency has picked up with human-induced climate change.

But scientists say to expect more wildfires and a longer fire season as human pollution keeps heating up the climate.

Harvey said people in the Puget Sound region should not be complacent about forest fires despite their relative rarity here.

“They're a part of this ecosystem,” he said. “They can be often large and severe, especially when those east wind events coincide with warm, dry conditions and an ignition on the landscape.”

Virginia Held said she was really grateful both for the firefighters’ efforts and for the kindness shown to her and her husband.

“There's just so many nice people, really,” she said. “Everybody wants to know if they can help or if we need anything for the chickens.”

Additional reporting by Megan Farmer.

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