Dispatchers received the first 911 call about a fire burning a steep slope along the south end of Lake Whatcom at 5:20 p.m. Monday, Aug. 28.
Lightning had struck a tree, igniting the rain-starved, densely wooded area beyond the dead-end of Blue Canyon Road. Fire District 18 was alerted, but quickly deferred to the Department of Natural Resources.
Accessing the fire proved treacherous, according to DNR, which ordered a helicopter to begin attacking the fire from the air that evening. But as darkness fell, the aircraft was grounded and the terrain was too dangerous to fight the fire from the ground, officials said.
Initial information about the fire, an estimated 5 acres at the time, was disjointed. A reporting team from Cascadia Daily News was unable to reach local officials for comment and eventually happened upon DNR trucks parked on the side of South Bay Drive around 10:40 p.m. Monday.
Residents living closest to the fire found out about it from neighbors, friends across the lake who could see the flames or photos shared on social media that gave the appearance of an inferno on the hill. Others guessed what was happening when they saw DNR trucks race by and heard a helicopter circling near the 20 or so homes on Blue Canyon Road, they told CDN.
A fire began Monday evening, Aug. 28 along the south shore of Lake Whatcom and was estimated to be 5 acres at the time. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)
The spectacle attracted an audience Monday night, raising questions that were largely left unaddressed by official sources until Tuesday morning.
The first public notification was issued on the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office Facebook at 9:35 a.m. Tuesday. The sheriff’s office’s Division of Emergency Management (DEM) and other county officials were unaware of the fire until DNR notified them Tuesday morning. County Executive Satpal Sidhu said he learned of the fire Tuesday through a Cascadia Daily News story.
“I called Emergency Services,” Sidhu said during a pre-scheduled Tuesday morning interview with CDN’s editorial board, “and then I got some reports. There's an email out in the last hour or so from the [DEM], because I chastened them a little bit — ‘What is going on? Where is our fire department? Who is there and not there?’”
County officials say their response was “immediate and adequate,” given the timing of DNR's notification to the county.
Community members have criticized communication delays to the public about the fire, and expressed confusion about where to find ongoing official information.
The town crier from Maui
For one woman, the situation was eerily familiar.
Maui resident Kami Irwin, visiting her parents’ home on Blue Canyon Road, heard a rumor the fire was contained Monday night, before seeing the blaze.
“I’ve seen fires up close and personal — that is not contained,” she recalled thinking. “You can’t sleep well knowing there’s a wildfire and you don’t know where it’s going to go.”
Irwin, who has been coordinating a donation center at Maui Brewing Co. for victims of the Hawaii wildfires, felt panicked.
“I literally just went through this,” she said.
Maui resident Kami Irwin, left, stands outside a deli in Maui that helped feed communities in need during the Lahaina wildfire. (Photo courtesy of Kami Irwin)
Irwin’s mom started calling neighbors and stopping at their houses Monday night to make sure they were aware of the fire, while Irwin and her dad took a boat out on the lake and began taking videos, feeding information to the public through social media while surveying the blaze for six hours.
“I was able to start doing live videos of [the fire], and it got the word out there,” Irwin said.
Information flows Tuesday
At 9:04 a.m. Tuesday, the Whatcom County Division of Emergency Management (DEM) found out about the fire from DNR, sheriff's office Public Information Officer Deb Slater said. Emergency Management is typically notified when dispatch calls for responses from multiple agencies — but only Fire District 18 was called at the time on Monday, Slater said.
The DNR makes judgment calls on when to alert county officials based on what they expect a fire to do, said Chris Hankey, DNR public information officer. A wildfire deep in the woods, far from any structures, likely wouldn’t necessitate quick communication between the two entities.
By Tuesday morning, the Lake Whatcom Fire had grown significantly, to 20–30 acres. Fire managers described the blaze as “high profile” because of its proximity to lakeside residents, the flammable abandoned Blue Canyon Coal Mine and the fact that the Lake Whatcom Watershed provides drinking water for much of Whatcom County.
“This [fire] obviously started creeping toward the residents and had them pretty panicked, and that’s what’s raised all these questions,” Hankey said. “Some kind of communication chain probably needed to be a little different with those neighbors, and possibly with emergency management, too.”
Slater acknowledged it is the Division of Emergency Management's responsibility to inform the general public about this type of emergency.
“That began as soon as DNR field operations deemed there was a potential threat to persons and property,” Slater said.
At DNR’s request, Emergency Management sent a “Level 2” evacuation alert for Blue Canyon Road residents at 9:21 a.m. Tuesday.
Whatcom County Division of Emergency Management sent out a "Level 2" evacuation notice for residents of Blue Canyon Road on Tuesday morning, Aug. 29. (Image courtesy of Kami Irwin)
The county used the federal Integrated Public Alert Warning System, or IPAWS, which disseminates the message through cell towers. Residents along the lake, not just on Blue Canyon Road, reported receiving the notification.
“Anyone registered on that cell tower may receive the notification,” Slater said. “People driving into the area may receive the notice.”
DNR and Fire District 18 officials went door-to-door along Blue Canyon Road between 9 and 11 a.m. Tuesday to discuss the evacuation notice and assess homes for fire preparedness.
Dain and Holly Willey said they felt well taken care of by the DNR officials who knocked on their door Tuesday morning. So, too, did other Blue Canyon Road residents under the evacuation notice, including Bobbie Jo Bay, who said “everyone knew what was happening right away.”
Residents across the lake, however, reported feeling confused and frightened upon receiving the Amber Alert-style evacuation notification, even though it wasn’t intended for them. The sheriff's office repeated the evacuation notice on Facebook at 9:35 a.m. Tuesday, alerting people in bold lettering that the message applied only to Blue Canyon Road residents.
Notifying people in harm's way was the first priority, Slater said. Then, the general public got updates through the sheriff's office's social media channels, beginning 14 minutes after the evacuation notification and continuing throughout the day on Tuesday.
“Once we started that exchange with DEM, they’ve been amazing keeping information out there. Those are critical chains in getting information out,” Hankey said.
Cascadia Daily News recently raised questions about Whatcom County’s general wildfire preparedness in a story published Aug. 25. It showed a review of local policies, and emergency plans revealed Whatcom County has no Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP) and is only in the beginning stages of what could be at least a two-year development process.
The sheriff's office said it seeks to improve its communication for emergencies. The office is about to launch Whatcom Ready, a website where residents can find information on current incidents and how emergency crews are responding to them, Slater said.
The website, WhatcomReady.org, is already up and running, with information on how to sign up for alerts and how to become better prepared for floods, earthquakes, wildfires and other hazards.
“The DEM is committed to always evaluating communications tools,” Slater said. “We are looking forward to Whatcom Ready being the place for Whatcom County residents to get access to preparedness information, incident updates and recovery resources.”
Hankey said DNR also looks to improve its communication, especially between other government entities.
“Those communication streams are critical,” Hankey said. “Each county likes to do things a little bit different, but that’s why you have local DNR staff that get to know what each county likes and can build that relationship.”
While Hankey doesn’t think earlier communication would have changed DNR’s response to the fire, he acknowledged the discomfort and frustration felt by community members Monday night.
“If there was a lack of communication that was occurring — and I’ve heard that, too, from some residents — that’s something we definitely want to improve in the future,” Hankey said.
Having gleaned details in the four days since the fire began, Irwin said she better understands DNR’s plans and decision-making, but on Monday night, she and others were in the dark, literally.
The Baker River Hotshots crew head to their trucks to head home for the night on Wednesday, Aug. 30 after fighting the Lake Whatcom Fire above Blue Canyon Road on the south end of the lake. (Andy Bronson/Cascadia Daily News)
And that feeling was all too familiar for Irwin, just three weeks after the devastating fires in Lahaina.
“We shouldn’t be the ones calling everyone and making sure they know,” Irwin said. “I feel like there should’ve been other authority out there instead of just us.”
Reporter Ralph Schwartz contributed to this story.