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Hotshot crew arrives to fight growing fire on South Lake Whatcom slope

Fire up to at least 30 acres; smaller fire on Bell Creek Logging Road also burning

A helicopter drops water on the fire before 10 a.m. Tuesday
A helicopter drops water on the fire before 10 a.m. Tuesday (Andy Bronson/Cascadia Daily News)
By Audra Anderson Assistant Editor

LAKE WHATCOM — A wildfire likely sparked by lightning Monday evening on the southeast shoreline of Lake Whatcom grew to at least 30 acres overnight, state officials said. 

Aerial resources have been grounded due to foggy and rainy conditions on the lake. A 20-person hotshot crew arrived and is preparing a plan of attack to prevent further spread as some residents prepare for a possible evacuation, said Chris Hankey, a DNR public information officer. An “initial attack” crew was also expected to arrive Tuesday. 

The fire, which started near the dead end of Blue Canyon Road, was estimated at less than an acre late Monday. By Tuesday morning it had grown, expanding upward and outward overnight, said Janet Pearce, a communications manager for the state Department of Natural Resources. 

Residents of homes on Blue Canyon Road were being issued “Level 2” evacuation notices Tuesday morning, meaning they should be prepared to evacuate if instructed, Hankey said. The fire has spread to areas above the homes, exposing them to possible falling debris. Whatcom County Sheriff’s officers are expected to communicate with an unknown number of local residents, Hankey added.

“There is now fire burning above where some of those residents are,” he said.

A map of how far the fire has spread from Lake Whatcom Park along the shorelines to the end of Blue Canyon Road.
The fire started along the Lake Whatcom shoreline near the end of Blue Canyon Road.

Four fire engines were ordered by fire managers Tuesday morning to protect area structures, Hankey said. One helicopter was seen dropping water on the fire and DNR officials said three had been ordered. Two scooper planes dropped water on the area. Chemicals are not being used — officials said it was a conscious choice not to use retardant and pollute the watershed.

Boat traffic is being halted for scoop planes to operate safely, according to a Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office post on X, formerly Twitter. Whatcom County Parks also closed Lake Whatcom Park to the public as crews fight the wildfire, according to a Tuesday afternoon announcement. No drones are allowed near the wildfire. 

Officials said two 20-person federal firefighting hand crews are expected to arrive at 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. to help attack the blaze, which is in extremely steep terrain officials describe as dangerous. State crews are in helicopters and planes.

Hankey said the first line of response to a wildfire is local DNR crews.

“Obviously, when something gets like this, it overwhelms local resources and you start bringing in outside resources,” said Hankey, noting that the fire is growing.

A longer response time is typical when waiting on those state and federal resources, he said.

A plane drops water over the South Lake Whatcom blaze leaving a trail of water over the trees.
A plane drops water over the South Lake Whatcom blaze Tuesday, Aug. 29. Chemicals are not being used — officials said it was a conscious choice not to use retardant and pollute the watershed. (Andy Bronson/Cascadia Daily News)

Hankey said wildfire hand crews are really what’s needed to fight the blaze. Because of the steep terrain and remote area, engines are not effective. That’s also why DNR has not called in other local fire departments for help, he added.

“What you’ve got here is very steep, very difficult terrain,” Hankey said. “The true, professional, 20-person hand crews are going to be working that. That’s the only effective way. To have structural folks working off their engines — it wouldn’t be effective at dealing with the fire here and how it’s spreading on those steep slopes.”

Local fire resources are on alert, though, including Fire Protection District 18. “[We are] here to assist DNR with whatever they need,” District 18 Chief David Darrah said Tuesday.

When the hand crews arrive, they will flank the blaze, and likely “fight fire with fire,” Hankey said. The method burns land before the wildfire in an attempt to stop its spread.

“I totally understand that people are frustrated, but that’s just the reality of fighting fire on really steep slopes,” Hankey said of waiting for the hand crews.

It would have been impossible for ground crews to stay on the steep slopes last night and helicopters are cut off at night, he said.

Firefighters were concerned with the spread of the fire, which began near the lakeshore, both upwards and laterally. Heat rises and fires typically expand uphill through forests during the daytime. 

“That’s the worry now,” Hankey said. “Cloud cover is helping but that’ll break.”

James Hecker shoots video of scooper planes fighting the fire while three men behind him talk.
Lake Whatcom resident James Hecker shoots video of scooper planes fighting the fire. Hecker lives on the south side of the lake across from where the fire is burning. (Andy Bonson)

Fire officials are also concerned about the fire’s proximity to the old Blue Canyon coal mine, which is maybe less than a mile from the fire. It exploded in 1895, killing 23 miners. It contains highly flammable materials.

The fire broke out Monday evening in second-growth forest along the shore after thunderstorms swept through the area. DNR engine leader Doug Lanning described the fire at that time as “very tame.”

Lanning said a helicopter initially dropped water on the fire Monday evening, but access is difficult.

A forest ablaze.
Department of Natural Resources crews plan to start battling the blaze Tuesday morning, Aug. 29, likely bringing in two engines and a helicopter. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)

The fire is in a remote location southeast of the Sudden Valley community, on the largely undeveloped southeastern shore of the lake. 

Whatcom County Parks & Recreation announced Tuesday that the popular Hertz Trail is temporarily closed due to the fire.

A 3-acre fire, likely caused by lightning, is burning in north Whatcom County on Bell Creek Logging Road, DNR said. DNR is dividing resources to fight both fires on Tuesday.

Both fires occurred as the region has been on high alert for “urban-wildland fires” during a spate of hot, dry local weather. The first significant rainfall in the region in weeks fell on Monday evening but also brought thunderstorm activity with it. A county report on wildfire danger previously identified inhabited areas along the eastern Lake Whatcom shoreline as an area of particular concern for wildfire dangers.

This is a developing story provided as a public service, outside CDN’s paywall, and will be updated.

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