Burning through steep, thick terrain, the Alder Lake Fire has grown to about 173 acres at a rate of about 20 to 30 acres per day since it was first reported on Aug. 11, according to officials from the U.S. Forest Service.
With the scent of burning wood lingering in the air, officials from four different agencies told a crowd of more than 100 people in the Mineral School gymnasium the latest updates on the Alder Lake fire on Tuesday night. Dozens of officials from national, state and local agencies were on hand to explain the situation and tell residents living along Pleasant Valley Road to be prepared should the fire grow to three critical levels.
“This is what they mean: level one be alert; level two be ready — it’s not time to start planning, you should have already done that — level 3 is leave immediately,” said Lewis County Director of Emergency Management Steve Mansfield.
The fire is more than a mile away from the neighborhood, but the two are separated by rugged and steep terrain.
The fire is being managed jointly by the U.S. Forest Service and the Washington Department of Natural Resources, but they are also working with the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office and neighboring fire protection districts. It’s currently burning across the Thurston and Lewis County line, partially on state land but mostly in the national forest.
According to officials from the U.S. Forest Service, the fire burned through 173 acres of old-growth forest as of Tuesday night. It was started when lightning struck a very steep slope on July 26 and smouldered for about two weeks until Aug. 11 when it was big enough to be seen and reported.
The Mineral Lake Fire Department was the first agency to respond to the fire, but it was too far up into the mountains for them to attack.
The mountainside hit by the fire is a north-facing slope that sits at a 40-60 percent grade. Officials say the blaze is spreading laterally to the east and west then burning to the north and south. Russell Wilstead, assistant fire management officer on the Gifford Pinchot National Forest said the fire is contained by “only a couple percent” but it is moving slowly.
In the days since it was first reported, many old logging roads were cleared with heavy equipment to get people and materials closer to the fire.
Firefighters have tried to stop the spread but the fire has jumped their lines several times. A crew of 90 people and one attack helicopter were on hand Tuesday to fight it, digging firelines trying to stem the spread. Officials from USFS and the DNR said that more people and resources will come as they are needed and available.
The flames have not burned into the canopy level of the trees, rather it is staying close to the ground, moving through an understory thick and laden with dead material. Many of the trees should survive the fire, but many likely won’t because the fire has burned “two or three feet into the soil” and will likely hit the roots of some. Wilstead attributed the fire to the dry conditions around the state.
“It’s not very often we have one here — especially in recent years,” he said.
Officials also urged the public to stay out of the area for their own safety and to allow fire crews the space they need to combat the blaze. Several roads in the area are also closed. forest road 7400000 from mile point 3.53 and all of the spur roads are closed, as is the 7409000.
Lewis County Sheriff Rob Snaza told the crowd his faith in DNR is “120 percent.” He said his department will post the information on Facebook and encouraged everyone to use the county’s emergency alert system Code Red to stay updated. Should the fire reach a level three, which would be very near some Pleasant Valley homes, he couldn’t force residents to leave, but would strongly encourage them to do so, especially if they had children.
Phyllis Turvill lives on Pleasant Valley. She said she is more comfortable after hearing how the fire was being fought, but is still nervous.
“Level two is a half-mile from my house,” she said.
While she was at the meeting, her husband was at home doing what he could to prepare should they have to evacuate.
“One of my neighbors lived here for 45 years and said there’s never been a fire like this,” she said.