INDEX — Smoke from the Bolt Creek fire still obscured the high ridges above town as Ryan Hoover, wearing a respirator to help him breathe, hammered away at the wooden frame of his future home.
The 33-year-old and his wife, both avid rock climbers who moved to Index in 2020, are part of an inflow of new residents drawn to the former railroad and logging town for its proximity to soaring granite cliffs and the crystalline Skykomish River.
Scientists have long warned that climate change would lead to more fires near towns like Index on the west side of the Cascades. And while the Bolt Creek fire is only one example, it could be a harbinger of blazes to come.
As Hoover worked, dry winds that had whipped the fire over the weekend gave way to a marine breeze from the west — a cool sigh of relief that has slowed the growth of the wildland blaze, which now covers more than 9,400 acres and continues to block residents from returning to their homes in Baring and Grotto.
Hoover and his wife returned to Index on Monday to work on the new house and tend to chores. The town, then still under evacuation, was quieter than usual.
“I’m trying to get this thing ready for winter,” Hoover said.
The fire ignited the morning of Sept. 10, turning the sky a nauseating shade of orange and raining ash onto unwitting communities in the foothills of the Cascades.
While the blaze was unexpected — in that it came so late in the annual fire season and spread rapidly over just a few days — warmer temperatures are making conditions west of the Cascades more favorable for such events.
Climate change wasn’t necessarily a cause of the fire but it likely acted as a catalyst, said Crystal Raymond of the University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group.
“It’s a good test case,” she said of the blaze, the official cause of which is still under investigation. “This isn’t just an Eastern Washington issue.”
Growing wildfire concerns
Bruce Albert moved to Index in 1975 as a 23-year-old eager to be within walking distance of the granite walls. Growing up in the Seattle’s University District, Albert had frequently driven there after class to climb.
Albert bought a house near the railroad tracks for $15,000, took a job as a chairlift mechanic at Stevens Pass Ski Area and never moved again.
Now a 70-year-old Index council member and former mayor, Albert has seen the region around his home change in recent years.
He pins the cause on global warming — and said the Bolt Creek fire is only the most recent example of extreme weather around Index. For decades, scientists have warned that global warming will exacerbate and intensify extreme weather events like heat waves and drought.
Of the five times Albert has had to shovel snow off his roof to prevent it from caving in, for example, he said three of them have been in the past decade.
In 2015, he said, a “cataclysmic and biblical” flood overcame the riverbank and uprooted half his trees.
The Cascades glaciers he used to climb have shrunk, and he’s seen stands of western red cedar disappear from his windows.
Albert said that while fires have burned in the woods near town, smoking for days, a blaze as large and affecting as Bolt Creek is new, surreal and sobering.
“Besides the weather, the reason that fire was able to spread so fast, so far, so furiously was the tremendous amount of dry fuel in the forest,” he said.
The affair has been jarring for the small town and its neighboring communities: As dry easterly winds intensify warmer summers west of the Cascades, priming the region for more smoke and flames, large fires still remain comparatively rare.
The protection of residents living in a “wildland urban interface” — designated places where human structures and nature areas overlap — is a growing concern in Western Washington.
King County in July announced its first-ever Wildfire Risk Reduction Strategy, which included a broad plan to improve the region’s ability to prepare for, respond to and recover from wildfires. Snohomish County and the Tulalip Tribes have also established similar measures in recent years
“Climate change is contributing to conditions that certainly promote the development of these large fires,” said Lara Whitely-Binder, King County’s climate preparedness program manager.
“If there’s one thing that I hope we take out of this experience this week, it’s the recognition that wildfires do occur in Western Washington and we need to be preparing for more,” she said. “This fire is a real bellwether.”
A small, tightly knit town
Index is like a village where everybody has a job to do, said Leigh Christianson, a 69-year old fire commissioner.
Whether it’s a tree-lighting ceremony, Fourth of July celebration or Pride parade, residents take any excuse to get together.
When it snows, Albert said, there’s an expectation people will help shovel and clear the streets. When it floods, everyone steps up to sandbag homes, then clear debris after the water recedes.
The town has far more climbing routes than citizens, with its population of roughly 150 comprising retirees like Albert and Christianson, as well as newcomers like the Hoovers. Residents say they’re attracted to the town for its undeniable beauty, the cool Skykomish River and views of the jagged Mount Index.
Renowned among rock climbers and home to a rafting and kayaking company — as well as a general store, one-room City Hall, fire station and elementary school — Index is also a destination for out-of-towners.
Up Highway 2 is Stevens Pass, beckoning skiers when the snow flies and mountain bikers in the offseason.
And aside from the natural splendor, Index’s small-town appeal keeps some residents firmly rooted.
Josie Radzwill, who returned home Monday to water her plants and refill a hummingbird feeder after evacuating Saturday, moved to town in 1979 and has lived there ever since.
Now 84, she has watched new residents arrive and older ones leave, attracted to or repelled by the town’s endearing quiet and slower pace.
“There’s something about living in a small town,” Radzwill said. “It just feels safer when you know all your neighbors.”
The Bolt Creek fire, which has left Highway 2 closed between Index and Skykomish through the weekend, has shaken that sense of calm.
When sirens rang out last weekend and first responders went door to door with evacuation orders, many Index residents drove away confronting the possibility their community could be destroyed when they returned.
And while that scenario hasn’t come to pass, Albert said he’s afraid the fire won’t be the last significant blaze in the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.
Nevertheless, Albert said Index is his home and watching after it is his responsibility.
“I’ve spent my whole adult life in this house,” he said. “To walk away from that, it’s not something anybody is eager to do.”