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Why haven't firefighters 'put out' the Bolt Creek fire?

caption: Smoke from the Bolt Creek fire lingers over Skykomish, Wash. Sept. 30, 2022.
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Smoke from the Bolt Creek fire lingers over Skykomish, Wash. Sept. 30, 2022.
John O'Brien / KUOW

The Bolt Creek Fire continues to smolder 14,000 acres of forest near Skykomish, on the northern edge of Highway 2. The exact cause of the human-sparked fire remains under investigation.

It's been 39 days since the fire started burning. Some residents are asking firefighters: Why haven't they put it out?

It's not so simple, officials say.

It's been a rough, smoky five weeks for Skykomish residents. People have had to cancel plans, schools and libraries have closed on and off, and doctors offices have seen more visits due to wheezing — or worse — from the smoke.

It's also bad for business.

Henry Sladek is the mayor of Skykomish. He also owns the historic Cascadia Inn.

"We're at about a quarter of the normal business we'd be doing this time of year," he said.

But despite the current outlook, things are going according to plan for the 277 firefighters on the job.

The goal is to stop the fire from spreading — not to put it out, said Don Ferguson, the public information officer for the Southeast Washington Interagency Incident Management Team, which is containing the fire.

"There have been a couple of fatalities in Western Oregon already this year, people being hit by trees, and that would be a very likely consequence of having people in the woods in those conditions," he said. "So we don't want to put firefighters at risk and where they're not going to be effective."

Ferguson added that crews are meeting the two big goals of containing wildland fires: protect people's lives and protect buildings from damage. They are letting the wilderness burn, a strategy widely adopted in the U.S.

It's up to nature to do the rest.

"We worked all day for two days to control seven acres," Ferguson said. "So that just kind of shows you dumping water from the sky is not a good way to put a fire out. What we need is season-ending weather."

They're also trying to keep the fire away from Highway 2 and towns, which has been more of a struggle.

The Bolt Creek fire is shaping up to be the fifth largest wildfire in Western Washington in recorded history, according to Ferguson.

For his part, Mayor Sladek said he's preparing himself for what fire experts have been warning about: the west-side of Washington could see more seasons like this.

"It's much wetter and damper over here, so this is the first time that that's really become and issue," Sladek said. "But it's probably a good reminder that we are in that kind of an area and increasingly so, probably, with climate change."

Firefighters estimate they'll have the Bolt Creek fire contained by Halloween.

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