Packwood Residents Asked to Be Vigilant as Fire Danger Increases

Goat Rocks Wilderness Blaze Growing as Heat Returns to Forecast


Residents of Packwood and the surrounding area filled every vacant seat in the Packwood Community Hall Tuesday evening, pulling out extra chairs and finding places to stand when all the pre-arranged seats were filled.

Attendees were there to get information on a wildfire burning just 5 miles as the crow flies northeast of town.

For now, incident managers are asking Packwood residents to do nothing more than stay vigilant and aware of the fire and the potential risk for danger in the coming days.

A lightning strike started the fire in the Goat Rocks Wilderness nearly a month ago, on Aug. 9.

A crew of six firefighters repelled out of two helicopters into the steep terrain of the Goat Rocks Wilderness to fight a 4-acre wildfire for several days before declaring that it was 60% contained.

The remaining 40% of the fire had fallen over cliffs to the east side. The difficulty of the terrain made the rest of the fire completely inaccessible to firefighters and helicopters battling the blaze from the air, according to Incident Commander Dan Cottrell.

“It was too steep, too hazardous, and firefighter safety is always a priority. So they did what they could up high where they could get to it,” Cottrell said.

For the next three weeks, the fire maintained a small size and footprint as the U.S. Forest Service continued monitoring it from the air, waiting for it to burn out on its own. Smoke hadn’t been seen since Aug. 13.

“It just really settled down and didn’t do much until Friday,” Cottrell said.

On Friday, dry, unstable air conditions caused the fire to flare up and start showing smoke again.

“That’s probably the first time a lot of folks realized that there was a fire up there,” Cottrell said.

The fire grew from less than 4 acres to about 60 acres that day before firefighting activities and better weather over the weekend slowed its spread.

“(The fire’s growth) was really a surprise to a lot of us. We really thought we had it buttoned up there,” said Cowlitz Valley District Ranger James Donahey, of the U.S. Forest Service.

With the fire now encompassing 80 to 90 acres — and with more extreme fire weather forecast for this upcoming weekend — the U.S. Forest Service decided it was time to meet with residents.

Lewis County Commissioner Lee Grose, who represents East Lewis County on the Board of County Commissioners, was present at Tuesday’s meeting and commended the Forest Service for taking the initiative to inform the community about the Goat Rocks Fire.

“This event is unprecedented in the history of the Forest Service and their relationship with the community,” Grose said.

The incident management team called the county about holding a community meeting immediately after the U.S. Forest Service raised the incident command level of the fire at 6 p.m. on Monday, Grose said.

“I have to give a big shoutout to the Forest Service for reaching out to the community,” he said.

While the weekend weather forecast is concerning for the incident management team, the fire wasn’t expected to threaten the town of Packwood as of Tuesday evening.

Several drainages currently stand between Packwood and the fire, which Cottrell said provided a natural barrier for the city.

“Fire, typically, moves a lot more aggressively uphill and slows down on north slopes and west slopes because it doesn’t get as much direct sunlight, so it would take a significant amount of progress on the fires we have to cross over,” Cottrell said. “Some of those natural features, and also those areas are broken up with rock slides, alpine areas, areas that the fire will not progress as quickly through. So I was definitely encouraged that the terrain, especially toward the west, is going to work in our favor.”

As of Tuesday, the fire was primarily smoldering, creeping and occasionally torching isolated pockets of trees, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

The fire’s spread has primarily been driven by burning material rolling downhill. The fire did spread from tree to tree on Friday, but that fire behavior has not been seen since.

Three helicopters — one used for reconnaissance and two used for direct fire response — and repelling firefighters have been fighting the fire from the air since Friday and will continue that work going forward. In addition, the Forest Service has initiated some emergency road improvements from Clear Fork Trailhead toward Three Peaks Trailhead to create a perimeter around the fire that is accessible to ground crews.

“That’s our initial step toward more robust on-the-ground efforts,” Cottrell said. “That fire would have to run several miles to get to that road system, but again, we want to be proactive and be ahead of the curve in case it does start to move again.”

Forest Road 4612 and Bluff Lake Trail 65 will remain closed to the public while crews work to improve that road for firefighting activity and move equipment to and from the fire.

“We will lift (the closures) as soon as we can. But right now, while we have these folks in there, we just need to close that for everyone's safety, not just yours, but for the firefighters as well working on those roads,” Donahey said.

The U.S. Forest Service manages the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, which encompasses the Goat Rocks Wilderness. The national agency has taken the lead on fire response, with assistance from the Washington state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and multiple contracted agencies and resources from around the Pacific Northwest.

“From day one, when this fire started, when that first call came in about it, the Forest Service, we went with a full force strategy … to put that fire out as quickly as possible using the least amount of resources to taxpayers possible,” said Donahey, later adding, “The team has a really good strategy. And I think that it will work out for us in the end.”

Cottrell clarified, “Strategy is still full suppression. However, due to the location and the dangerous terrain that it's in, we don't currently have firefighters up on the fire line. We're using aircraft, which has been pretty effective, (and) we’re coming up with plans to meet the fire and be ready for it.”

The fire was not threatening any structures as of Tuesday evening, which made it a lower priority for state resources, but the U.S. Forest Service has contingency plans in place to mobilize and utilize additional resources if the fire puts people and property at risk.

Even though the fire is not currently threatening people and property, Donahey assured the Packwood community that the Forest Service is doing everything it can to protect the valuable landscape.

“That forest hasn’t seen fire since around 1400, so it is a really unique place,” Donahey said. “I just wanted to emphasize to those firefighters, that they should have that same reverence that I have for this place and really try to do their best to keep it not just the same way it was before, but better than if they hadn't come here. That's what we really want.”

The U.S. Forest Service will continue posting fire updates on the Gifford Pinchot National Forest’s Facebook page at


Lewis County Alert

If the fire does spread toward Packwood and threaten residences, Lewis County Emergency Management will issue evacuation orders via the Lewis County Alert system.

“In an evacuation notice, what we can do is we can map the area which needs to be evacuated and we’ll send out a notice that says either ‘ready,’ ‘set’ or ‘go,’” said Lewis County Emergency Management Planner Erika Katt, who spoke briefly Tuesday on how Lewis County uses its emergency alert system.

A “ready,” or level one, evacuation means the threat is getting closer and it has the potential to impact the area. People are encouraged to pack what they need at this point and be ready to go should the danger level increase.

A “set,” or level two, evacuation, means the danger is significant in the area but it’s not quite at the point where people need to leave. Those who take longer to move, such as people with a disability and those with small children or pets, are encouraged to start evacuating at this stage.

A “go,” or level three, evacuation, means there is an active danger and you need to leave now or your life could be in danger.

Lewis County Emergency Management uses the same evacuation alert system for all emergencies, including floods.

Lewis County residents will need to sign up for Lewis County Alert at in order to receive emergency messages from the county.

“That's one definite way you'll get informed on … what is happening. You will also be notified of shelter locations and those types of things,” Katt said.

Those who aren’t signed up can still receive evacuation notices through a separate national public safety system, Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA), that sends geographically targeted emergency alerts to compatible mobile devices.