By Steve Guntli
Whatcom County residents have found themselves under a layer of smoke since July 6 as wildfires rage in Washington and British Columbia.
B.C. currently has more than 180 wildfires throughout the province. The smoke from the more than 70 fires burning in southern B.C. and Vancouver Island has settled over much of western Washington, extending as far south as the Olympic Peninsula.
The smoke has drastically impacted the air quality in the region. North Whatcom County is facing the worst of it: a monitoring station for the Washington State Department of Ecology rated the air quality near the Canadian border as “very unhealthy” on the morning of July 6. By mid-afternoon, the conditions had been upgraded to “unhealthy for sensitive people,” meaning it could still pose health concerns to people with lung or heart conditions.
Over the weekend, the county dispatch center was clogged with telephone calls from citizens concerned about the smoke. Dispatchers received close to 100 calls starting on July 5. Authorities are encouraging citizens to limit their calls to confirmed fires.
According to the Northwest Clean Air Agency, the air quality is likely to remain poor until Thursday or Friday, when the forecast calls for a shift in wind direction.
Many of the fires in B.C. remain serious, but those affecting Whatcom County have mostly been contained. Firefighters battled four fires across the county last weekend: one on Stewart Mountain, another on Portage Island, a third northwest of Sudden Valley and a small fire near Paradise Valley Road.
The Stewart Mountain fire is of the most concern to firefighters. The blaze began midday on July 5 and grew from about 5 to 20 acres overnight. As of July 7, the fire was about 50 percent contained, according to Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) spokesman Chris Hankey.
The Stewart Mountain fire is entirely on state-managed lands. On July 5, the DNR dispatched crews, helicopters and bulldozers to fight the fire. Hand crews worked through the night to establish a fire line. The nearest home is 1 mile away from the blaze, and no evacuations are expected.
The other county fires are contained, according to Hankey. The 8-acre Portage Island fire started on July 4. Approximately 50 campers were evacuated from the island until DNR crews could contain the fire. ON July 6, the fire was 100 percent contained and crews have begun cleaning up the site.
The third fire, near North Shore Road and Agate Bay Lane northwest of Sudden Valley near Lake Whatcom, grew to about 4 acres before it was contained. Crews from North Whatcom Fire and Rescue, Fire District 7 and the South Whatcom Fire Authority responded to the scene to contain the fire and keep it from spreading to nearby homes. No one was evacuated.
The fire on Paradise Valley Road near South Pass Road was called in late Sunday night and was contained. The blaze spread over approximately 1 acre.
The causes of the fires are still under investigation.