Besides threatening homes and residents, the Upper Skagit complex fire is keeping tourists away, costing businesses.
What’s supposed to be Buffalo Run Inn & Restaurant owner Marshall Cooper’s annual season of big profit has instead become a period of continuous cancellations and worry.
For the last week, he’s been losing thousands of dollars daily as prospective guests back out on their reservations at his inn in Marblemount, Skagit County, about 14 miles from the North Cascade’s Upper Skagit complex fire.
“Nobody wants to come up here with the smoke,” Cooper said.
The nearly 9-square-mile fire, a combination of eight lightning-caused blazes that ignited about two weeks ago, has affected work at Seattle City Light’s Skagit Hydroelectric Project, forced more than a hundred people to evacuate and prompted the closure of Highway 20 between Newhalem, Whatcom County, and Rainy Pass, the area’s main roadway. The project, which is a combination of three dams along the Skagit River, generates about 20 percent of Seattle’s electricity.
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“As long as that highway is closed, you shut the economy off,” Cooper said. “I’m supposed to be making money in the summer to stock away for the winter, and it’s going to be tough.”
The nearly 7-square-mile Goodell fire, the largest blaze within the complex, had the most activity as of Monday, proving to be the main force behind the complex’s significant growth over the weekend, Upper Skagit complex fire spokesman Larry Lucas said.
The fire started approaching Seattle City Light’s facilities last week, forcing some employees and others to leave Diablo, Whatcom County, and surrounding areas and forcing the utility company to shut down transmission lines.
City Light spokesman Roberto Bonaccorso said Monday afternoon that the utility’s facilities in the Diablo and Ross areas remained at partial staffing. The Newhalem facility was fully staffed in part because of a sprinkler system and fire crews’ progress over the week. He said it’s too early to know the total amount of damage to transmission lines in the areas, but the company is estimating a loss of about $100,000 per day.
The fire grew in intensity over the weekend on the southeast end near Newhalem, which includes housing for the utility workers, and at the North Cascades National Park visitor center. Both areas, including Diablo, have been evacuated. Fire crews are busily working to protect buildings from any potential damage, Lucas said.
In total, about 150 firefighters are battling the complex fire that’s threatening about 160 properties and has forced about 150 people to evacuate the two communities and surrounding areas, he said.
Instead of building a controlled fire line around the Upper Skagit complex perimeter, Lucas said crews are targeting specific areas as the threats to residents and buildings increase. It’s a containment method that’s better suited for the rugged terrain.
“It’s the most picturesque country in the world and it’s steep,” Lucas said. “It wouldn’t be safe to put firefighters in those conditions.”
He said Monday’s west-to-east winds helped clear smoke from the area. Smoke has been a significant challenge for aerial crews trying to accurately map the fire’s perimeter, he said.
Those plumes are causing other problems.
More than half of Cooper’s planned guests canceled their reservations Sunday, citing difficulties getting there and the area’s heavy smoke. He said he’s losing between $3,000 and $4,000 a day, and in his decade of management, he’s never experienced a fire season with such a heavy toll on business.
“I’m hoping that it rains like hell over the weekend,” Cooper said.