SUDDEN VALLEY — Lake Whatcom has reopened to boaters as of 4 p.m. Thursday, fire officials said. The North Hertz Trail will open at noon Friday, and the lower south trail will remain closed as crews battle the Lake Whatcom Fire.
Boaters were temporarily barred from the lake as fire managers organized aerial drops on the fire. The public is still asked to steer clear of the fire area, as falling debris has slid down to the shore.
Despite earlier plans, a helicopter was ordered to fight the difficult north side of the fire Thursday. Officials say they had a “pretty optimistic” briefing Thursday morning before hand crews entered day three of battling the fire, according to Chris Hankey, Department of Natural Resources public information officer.
The fire is still estimated at 45 acres and “in the same footprint it was on Tuesday afternoon,” thanks to damp weather and the arrival of three 20-person hand crews to battle the blaze from the ground, Hankey said Thursday morning.
The fire, located past the dead-end of Blue Canyon Road, is thought to have been caused by a lightning strike around 5:30 p.m. Monday, Aug. 28, and was estimated at 5 acres that night. By Tuesday morning, the fire was estimated to be between 20–30 acres.
Thursday’s plan of attack once again relies on the three hand crews, including the Baker River Hotshots, who are continuing to build fire lines to flank the blaze. Engines are also available to support the crews’ efforts.
Hand crews already built a fire line along the south side of the fire, nearest to the homes on Blue Canyon Road and the Blue Canyon Coal Mine.
“They’re feeling really good about that line there, and the progress they were able to make yesterday, and their plans for today,” Hankey said. “Lots of resources thrown at that one.”
Building the line to the north flank of the fire has proved more difficult because of the steep cliffs. Crews will continue to fortify the south flank fire line and build the north flank line on Thursday.
Hankey does not expect helicopters, since using aerial resources means temporarily pulling hand crews off the slope.
“Unless something changes with fire behavior, the plan is to not fly helicopters on the fire today,” Hankey said Thursday morning.
Once fire lines are secure and crews have mopped up — meaning they’ve extinguished or removed burning material near the lines — Hankey said he expects the outside resources, like the hand crews, to be released. Fire containment is still estimated at 0%, and crews want to improve lines and continue mopping up before changing the number.
Local DNR firefighters would continue to fight and monitor the fire after their release.
“The team won’t leave until the Northwest Region DNR knows it can handle it,” Hankey said.
Whatcom County Parks closed Lake Whatcom Park and the popular Hertz Trail to the public Tuesday afternoon. More information on park and trail closures headed into Labor Day weekend is expected later Thursday morning, Hankey said.
The effects of the fire, in a highly visible and vulnerable location along the Lake Whatcom Watershed, will likely be seen for weeks, Hankey said.
“You will see smoke and things like that coming out of the center of the fire for a long time, probably until the real rains or snows come,” Hankey said.