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Ground crews greatest asset for battling Lake Whatcom Fire, officials say

Fire managers held off helicopters to allow hand crews to work

The Baker River Hotshots crew head to camp in a single file line.
The Baker River Hotshots crew head to camp, set up on the Sudden Valley Community Association athletic fields, after battling the Lake Whatcom Fire Wednesday, Aug. 30. Three ground crews, including the hotshots, are on scene. (Andy Bronson/Cascadia Daily News)
By Audra Anderson Assistant Editor

SUDDEN VALLEY — The three hand crews, including one specialized hotshot crew, are fire managers’ best weapon in battling the 45-acre Lake Whatcom Fire, officials say. 

Two helicopters were expected Wednesday to help fight the fire, located past the dead-end of Blue Canyon Road, but fire managers decided to call off the aircraft in order to keep the hand crews operating from the ground, said Chris Hankey, Department of Natural Resources public information officer. 

“They’re keeping hand crews engaged. They’re spending a lot of time dropping hazard trees — that’s what’s occupying a lot of their time — and trying to build fire line as they’re getting areas secure,” Hankey said Wednesday evening. 

The fire is thought to have been caused by a lightning strike around 5:30 p.m. Monday, Aug. 28, and was estimated at one-quarter acre that night. By Tuesday morning, the fire was estimated to be between 20–30 acres.

Hankey said Wednesday evening the fire has not spread toward the homes along Blue Canyon Road. As of latest estimates, the blaze was 0% contained, Hankey said, but he expects an updated number by later Wednesday night or Thursday morning.

Two hand crews arrived Wednesday morning to fight the fire, aiding the hotshot crew that arrived Tuesday afternoon. 

The three specialized hand crews were on site as of 8:45 a.m. Wednesday to fight the fire, Hankey said. Seven engines, including five from DNR and two contract engines, have been on the scene helping prepare structures and are ready to provide water support as crews build hand lines, Hankey said. 

A “Type 3” incident command team from Southeast Washington, made up of fire district and DNR staff, has also been brought in to manage the fire due to “the complexities it has,” such as the steep terrain and its proximity to houses, Hankey said.

Residents along Blue Canyon Road have been under a “Level 2” evacuation since Tuesday morning, meaning they should be prepared, but do not need to leave their homes. 

Department of Natural Resources ordered a helicopter to begin dropping water on the fire Monday, but the aircraft was grounded as night fell, Hankey said. On-the-ground crews did not battle the fire Monday night due to safety concerns. 

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.

By Tuesday, local DNR crew members were on-site, and helicopters and scooper planes battled the blaze from above while fire managers waited on specialized ground crews to arrive, Hankey said. The crews were ordered Tuesday morning, but only one hotshot crew arrived to begin battling the fire that afternoon. The other two crews arrived on Wednesday. 

“It was just a waiting game to get them here,” Hankey said of the 20-person hand crews, which are expected to be most effective at battling the fire due to the difficult terrain. “It takes time to bring in hand crews from across the state.”

An array of colorful tents set up for camp to be used by the fire crews.
Fire crews have temporarily set up camp at the Sudden Valley Community Association athletic fields. (Audra Anderson/Cascadia Daily News)

Fire crews have temporarily set up camp at the Sudden Valley Community Association athletic fields. The command post is located at the Sudden Valley Dance Barn, Hankey said. 

The closed Blue Canyon coal mine, located about a mile from the fire, is still an active concern for fire officials as it contains flammable materials, posing a safety risk and the potential to expand the fire.

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