‘Not Over Yet’: Goat Rocks Fire Meeting in Packwood Gives Answers for Residents


As the Goat Rocks Fire continues to cast smoke over Packwood, residents expressed fear, thankfulness and curiosity during a meeting Wednesday night at the Packwood Community Hall, where agency representatives presented status updates to at least 115 people.

The meeting was also streamed live on the Gifford Pinchot National Forest’s Facebook page before officials took questions from the live chat and spent time speaking with attendees. It can still be viewed at https://www.facebook.com/GiffordPinchot

With the fire burning in the Goat Rocks Wilderness and Gifford Pinchot National Forest while affecting the unincorporated community of Packwood and U.S. Highway 12, efforts fighting it have come from local, state and federal agencies alike. 

Per a Thursday morning update, the fire was 0% contained and had burned 3,212 acres of forest lands. Packwood and nearby neighborhoods remained at a level one, “get ready” evacuation notice while the upper Timberline neighborhood south of U.S. Highway 12 has stayed in a level two, “be set” notice. 

When the fire experienced exponential growth on Friday, residents of Timberline, Goat Rocks and High Valley were issued level three, “go now” notices, displacing more than 500 residents as the highway was closed east of Packwood.

On Sunday, the incident response team transitioned into a type II response, allowing more resources to be used in firefighting. In a matter of days, the total number of professionals working on the Goat Rocks Fire grew from 15 to nearly 300, said acting Cowlitz Valley District Ranger James Donahey. He added he knows the community wants to support the staff on the fire, but reminded residents firefighters are professionals and that resources do exist to support them. He said something as small as a card may be enough to lift spirits.

“I’ve never worked with as many people as we’ve had on this fire and everything goes so good. They were given directions, no arguments. They followed them. So, my hat's off to that whole group of guys over there. They're awesome,” said Packwood Fire Chief Lonnie Goble.

It was just last April when Goble sat in the very room holding Wednesday night’s meeting and told the community Packwood’s next big fire was not a question of “if?” but, “when?”

Goble added he will now pick up where that April meeting left off, helping residents apply for firewise grants to incentivize protecting their personal property with defensible space between potential fire fuel and structures. 

“Also, I'd like to thank all the people in the places that were evacuated. We didn't have no arguments. Everybody got out, which was very good, and we did the evacuation in just under one hour, which is pretty good for Packwood,” he said, earning a laugh from the crowd. Attendees of the meeting heard presentations from Donahey, Goble, Lewis County Division of Emergency Management (DEM), the state Department of Natural Resources, an incident meteorologist, Incident Commander Alan Lawson and others.

First on the docket, Lawson thanked the community for such a good turnout and gave a brief overview of the fire’s status. 

“We still have hundreds of firefighters out on the line right now working this fire. It is not over yet. Granted, fall is on its way, but there's still smoke in the air,” he said. “We're working very hard out there to minimize the damage to the resources. And of course, more importantly, keep the fire out of the community.”

Lawson added what keeps him awake at night is the thought of those firefighters on the line and their safety. Fortunately at this time, no injuries have been reported on the project.

Next, Donahey spoke about the purpose of the meeting, which was allowing residents to get their questions answered and to address unsettled feelings that may be with folks after the trauma of evacuating in an emergency.

He added while locals may still be coming to terms with this “life-altering event,” the agencies involved in the evacuation decisions were proud to say if the fire had seen more growth on the weekend, residents would have been safe. Because late last week saw a “red flag warning,” a weather advisory signaling windy, dry conditions ideal for fire growth, and due to the fire’s thick column of smoke, firefighters were not able to locate the blaze in order to accurately predict its movement and whether it was threatening neighborhoods. 

“We erred on the side of caution,” Donahey said, adding later, “The other thing I really think we did right is when it was safe to get people back into their homes, we did so as soon as possible.”

Looking toward conditions in the following week that could help or hinder fire growth, Incident Meteorologist Steve Bodnar gave a weather report. 

Explaining his job, Bodnar said he “fights the fire, essentially, with my computer.”

His role is to watch winds, lightning potential, precipitation and more to give firefighters adequate warning and help operations make plans. Especially in terrain as steep as the Goat Rocks Wilderness, he said, this is valuable for those on the line who may not be able to see incoming weather themselves. 

After monitoring the last 60 days of precipitation in East Lewis County, Bodnar said the area was “bone-dry,” setting the stage for last week’s winds to pick up and carry the fire.

With the air expected to stay humid and cooler, the red flag conditions of last week now seem far behind. He reported the weekend may bring precipitation and that lighting is unlikely, although this weekend’s rain will not be “season-ending,” in other words, enough to completely douse the fire. 

With the topography of the region, according to Forrest Ownbey, fire behavior analyst, higher humidity is essential to preventing the fire from climbing downhill.

“It’s pretty steep out on those mountains. One of the things that fire doesn’t want to do is run downhill very fast,” Ownbey said, adding that dry conditions increase the likelihood of downhill runs as dry fuel such as moss or logs may roll to lower elevations. 

“Now, the smoke you’re seeing is all those big logs. When you build a fire, those logs take a long time to dry out, so they’re still able to burn and they’re going to continue to burn,” he said. 

Heading into next week, Ownbey and Bodnar mentioned weather may warm up again, but not to the hot, dry levels seen earlier this month.

“Are we going to see the same type of fire behavior we saw?” Ownbey asked, answering with, “Probabilities are lower. … Could it still happen? Most definitely, but probabilities are lower and lower and lower. We have better weather coming, we’re getting shorter days, less sunlight and that makes a big difference.”

Toward the end of the meeting, the crowd heard from DEM Planner Erika Katt and DEM Deputy Director Ross McDowell, who encouraged folks to sign up for Lewis County Alerts to get the most accurate evacuation notices and emergency status updates as possible via text or email. 

Residents across the county can sign up for the alerts at https://lewiscountywa.gov/departments/emergency-management/lewis-county-alert/.

McDowell said once the danger of the fire is less imminent, he will help organize volunteer teams in the affected neighborhoods to come in and help stack wood and put personal property back in order. Items at many residences were moved to create more buffer space between homes and potential fuel.

He closed by saying if any resident is still displaced or needs any assistance, they should call DEM at 360-740-1151.