A series of brushfires on South Whidbey last week have been officially deemed suspicious and are now under investigation by police.
According to Island County Sheriff Mark Brown, a cause remains unknown but factors have made it difficult to positively rule out foul play, particularly the number of fires involved. Investigators say as many as eight were started along a stretch of Highway 525 less than one mile in length.
Several leads were eliminated early on but the department has received no new information and has no suspects.
“It is highly suspicious and I would urge anyone with information to call us,” Brown said.
He credited firefighters with a stellar response, saying their efforts may have saved several buildings in the area from destruction.
“This had the potential of ballooning up into a real disaster,” Brown said. “Thank God for them.”
The fires began shortly after noon Friday, July 3 on the south side of the state route between Scott Road and the Eagles Aerie past Double Bluff Road. They combined to form three fires that South Whidbey Fire/EMS officials are calling the largest brushfire fought on the South End since the 1990s today.
According to Mike Cotton, deputy chief for South Whidbey Fire/EMS, it scorched about 15 acres of grassland, damaged power lines and power poles, and threatened a number of buildings. Multiple island and state agencies responded to the emergency. It caused heavy traffic delays along Highway 525 and even resulted in some residents leaving their homes as a precautionary measure.
“This was a significant event,” Cotton said. “We had the highway shut down for a couple of hours.”
Driving southbound on Highway 525, he counted eight fires between Scott Road and the Aerie.
Several buildings were at risk, including the Eagles lodge and a couple of homes. Firefighters initially focused their efforts around these structures.
Fire officials didn’t order any home evacuations, but some people decided to retreat to a safe distance when warned by firefighters.
Others got involved.
Dennis and Joyce Bennett, whose motor home was positioned behind the Eagles, said they heard sirens just before noon. When they came to investigate, the fire was well underway. The couple moved sprinklers near the grassland to assist firefighters. Joyce said at the time that the fire was “pretty scary” and that she was concerned the fire could move closer to her home.
“I never expected anything like this,” Joyce said.
Dennis added, “Never have I seen anything like this before.”
The majority of the fires were under control within 45 minutes, but firefighters spent about three hours working to extinguish hot spots. Some state firefighters were still doing mop up as of 7:30 p.m.
The incident and the subsequent highway closure resulted in heavy traffic delays; motorists were reportedly asked to avoid the highway because of backups.
The fires come on the heels of a recent burn ban issued by Brown, who is also the county’s fire marshal, and a proclamation by the Island County Commissioners that urged the public to exercise extreme caution with fireworks this year due to hot weather and low moisture levels.
South Whidbey Fire/EMS Chief Rusty Palmer said Friday’s brushfires were just the start of a busy weekend; they responded to about 40 calls that ranged from medical calls and water rescues to seven or eight additional brushfires. Some were the result of fireworks, others from cigarettes, he said.
Palmer urged the public to use extreme caution over the next couple of months, saying Independence Day is past but not the danger.
“Just because the Fourth is over doesn’t mean we’re out of the woods yet,” he said. “People really need to be careful the rest of the summer.”
Record Editor Justin Burnett contributed to this report.