Bolt Creek fire highlights climate change and increased wildfire risk in Western Australia

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INDEX – Smoke from the Bolt Creek Fire still obscured the high ridges above the city as Ryan Hoover, wearing a respirator to help him breathe, hammered the timber frame of his future home.

The 33-year-old and his wife, both keen rock climbers who moved to Index in 2020, are part of an influx of new residents drawn to the former railway and logging town for its proximity to the granite cliffs and the crystal clear Skykomish River.

Scientists have long warned that climate change will lead to more fires near towns like Index, on the west side of the Cascades. And while the Bolt Creek fire is just one example, it could be a harbinger of fires to come.

While Hoover worked, the dry winds that had fanned the fire over the weekend gave way to a westerly sea breeze – a cool sigh of relief that slowed the Wildlands Fire’s growth, which now covers over 9,400 acres and continues to block residents from returning to their homes in Baring and Grotto.

Hoover and his wife returned to Index on Monday to work on the new house and take care of chores. The town, then still under evacuation, was quieter than usual.

“I’m trying to winterize this thing,” Hoover said.

The fire ignited on the morning of September 10, turning the sky a foul-smelling orange hue and raining ash on unwitting communities in the Cascade foothills.

While the fire was unexpected – in that it arrived so late in the annual fire season and spread rapidly in just a few days – the warmer temperatures make conditions west of the Cascades more favorable. to such events.

Climate change wasn’t necessarily a cause of the fire, but it likely acted as a catalyst, said Crystal Raymond of the University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group.

“It’s a good test,” she said of the fire, the official cause of which is still under investigation. “It’s not just an eastern Washington problem.”

Growing concerns over wildfires

Bruce Albert moved to Index in 1975 at the age of 23 wanting to be within walking distance of the granite walls. Growing up in Seattle’s college district, Albert had frequently driven there after class to climb.

Albert bought a house near the train tracks for $15,000, took a job as a chairlift mechanic at Stevens Pass Ski Area, and never moved again.

Now a 70-year-old Index council member and former mayor, Albert has seen the area around his home change in recent years.

He attributes the cause to global warming – and said the Bolt Creek fire is just the most recent example of extreme weather around Index. For decades, scientists have warned that global warming will exacerbate and intensify extreme weather events like heat waves and droughts.

Of the five times Albert had to shovel snow from his roof to keep it from collapsing, for example, he said three of them have been in the past decade.

In 2015, he says, a “cataclysmic and biblical” flood submerged the riverbank and uprooted half of its trees.

The Cascades glaciers he used to climb shrank, and he saw stands of western redcedar disappear from his windows.

Albert said that although fires have been burning in the woods near town, smoldering for days, a fire as large and touching as Bolt Creek is new, surreal and sobering.

“Besides the weather, the reason the fire was able to spread so fast, so far, so furiously was the huge amount of dry fuel in the forest,” he said.

The case was shocking for the small town and its neighboring communities: While dry easterly winds intensify hotter summers west of the Cascades, bringing the region to more smoke and flames, the large fires remain relatively rare.

Protecting residents living in an “urban wilderness interface” — designated places where human structures and natural areas overlap — is a growing concern in western Washington.

King County announced its first-ever wildfire risk reduction strategy in July, which included a comprehensive plan to improve the region’s ability to prepare for, respond to and recover from wildfires. Snohomish County and the Tulalip Tribes have also implemented similar measures in recent years.

“Climate change is contributing to conditions that are definitely conducive to the development of these large fires,” said Lara Whitely-Binder, King County Climate Readiness Program Manager.

“If there’s one thing I hope we take away from this experience this week, it’s the recognition that wildfires are happening in western Washington and we need to be prepared for more,” a- she declared. “This fire is a real indicator.”

A tight-knit little town

Index is like a village where everyone has a job to do, said Leigh Christianson, a 69-year-old fire marshal.

Whether it’s a tree lighting ceremony, a 4th of July celebration or a Pride parade, residents take any excuse to come together.

When it snows, says Albert, people are expected to help shovel and clean the streets. In the event of a flood, everyone heads to the sandbag houses and then clears the debris once the water has receded.

The town has far more climbing routes than citizens, with its population of around 150 including retirees like Albert and Christianson, as well as newcomers like the Hoovers. Residents say they are drawn to the town for its undeniable beauty, the coolness of the Skykomish River and the views of jagged Mount Index.

Renowned among rock climbers and home to a rafting and kayaking business – as well as a general store, one-room town hall, fire station and elementary school – Index is also a destination for foreigners.

Up Hwy 2 is Stevens Pass, which attracts skiers when the snow flies and mountain bikers during the off-season.

And natural splendor aside, Index’s small-town appeal keeps some residents firmly rooted.

Josie Radzwill, who returned home on Monday to water her plants and fill a hummingbird feeder after evacuating on Saturday, moved to town in 1979 and has lived there ever since.

Now 84, she has seen new residents arrive and older ones leave, attracted or repelled by the endearing calm and slower pace of the city.

“There’s something about being in a small town,” Radzwill said. “It’s just safer when you know all your neighbors.”

The Bolt Creek Fire, which shut down Highway 2 between Index and Skykomish throughout the weekend, has shaken that sense of calm.

When the sirens sounded last weekend and first responders went door to door with evacuation orders, many Index residents drove away, fearing their community would be destroyed in their wake. return.

And while that scenario didn’t materialize, Albert said he’s worried the fire won’t be the last significant fire in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.

Nonetheless, Albert said Index was his home and it was his responsibility to watch.

“I’ve spent my entire adult life in this house,” he says. “To get away from that, it’s not something everyone is looking forward to.”

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