Wildfire smoke rises from a hillside next to a road running along a lake
(Photo: InciWeb.gov)

North Cascades National Park Is Closed due to Wildfires

The Sourdough and Blue Lake Fires shut down the only road through the park, and crews are working to protect populated areas from the blazes

Miyo McGinn

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It’s been stiflingly hot all across the Pacific Northwest this week, and in Washington’s North Cascades National Park, wildfires have ratcheted the heat up even more. A blaze called the Sourdough Fire started on Saturday, July 29 above Diablo Lake, one of the park’s iconic roadside destinations. As of Thursday, August 16, it has burned nearly 3,000 acres.

The nearly 400-person crew has the conflagration about 11 percent contained, and they’ve successfully protected the handful of nearby structures. Most urgently threatened were the Ross and Diablo dams, which generate electricity for Seattle, and the nearby town of Diablo, home to many utility employees and their families.

The fire passed the town by without any injuries or property damage. Nicholas DiGiacco, the spokesman for the National Interagency Fire Center, told the Bellingham Herald that officials are “confident” that the area is contained. Now, fire crews are shepherding the flames west, towards a preexisting firebreak, a wildfire scar from 2015. “Our intent is to move this fire into that scar with the intention that it would run out of fuel,” said DiGiacco.

The crown jewel of Washington State’s Cascade Mountains, North Cascades National Park is a popular summer destination for climbing, camping, boating, and hiking, just a few hours from Seattle. It boasts a handful of road-accessible campgrounds and recreation areas, but the main attraction is 500,000 acres of remote alpine backcountry accessible by hundreds miles of trails, including a long section of the Pacific Crest Trail.

This year, though, the thru-hikers en route to Canada, along with other outdoor enthusiasts, are going to have to reroute or wait for things to cool off. In addition to the Sourdough Fire blazing in the heart of the park, the smaller Blue Lake Fire is burning in the National Forest along the park’s eastern border, and that fire has closed the highway to traffic from the opposite side.

The park’s ecosystem is accustomed to fire, and it has overcome small, cleansing blazes as well as larger and more damaging ones over the past decade. What makes the Sourdough Fire particularly worrying is its proximity to infrastructure. The burn area borders the North Cascades Scenic Highway, the only road through the park.

“Rocks continue to fall down, trees continue to fall down, so we’re not putting crews in there unless we absolutely have to for transport back and forth,” Northwest Interagency Incident Management Team section chief Dean Lange told local NPR affiliate KUOW.

The dams at Diablo Lake and Ross Lake that make electricity for Seattle are also near the flames, and were taken offline. A privately-run visitor and education center on the shores of Diablo Lake had to be evacuated.

It’s not just people living in the nearby towns and would-be campers who are feeling the heat. At the beginning of the week, enough smoke drifted into the greater Seattle area to noticeably impact air quality. Fortunately, the smog is nowhere near the levels it has reached in past years, but it arrived in tandem with daily highs in the 90svery hot for the historically temperate area.

Slightly cooler temperatures are in the forecast for later this week, but it will be awhile before North Cascades National Park and the highway are open for normal operations. The Sourdough Fire is only 11 percent contained, and there’s the possibility that it will continue to spread during the dry, hot, and breezy conditions expected in the next few days.

Wildfires and heatwaves are the new norm in a region best known for rain and lush forests. But with any luck, the worst damage from the fires in North Cascades will be on would-be visitor’s summer plans.