Crews work Tuesday to contain the fire caused by the train derailment in Custer. (Courtesy photo/Washington State Department of Ecology)

Custer evacuation lasted five hours; cause not yet determined

CUSTER — Two railway cars carrying crude oil caught fire after they derailed in Custer Tuesday afternoon.

Seven total cars derailed in the 7500 block of Portal Way at about 11:46 a.m., sending plumes of black smoke into the sky. The Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office established a half-mile evacuation zone around the incident and Interstate 5 was closed in both directions as crews dealt with the derailment. I-5 was shut down for about an hour, while the local evacuation lasted about five hours.

Officials had not determined a cause of the derailment as of a Tuesday afternoon press conference, where Washington State Patrol, BNSF, the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office and the Washington State Department of Ecology provided some more details on the situation.

The train was heading northbound to the Phillips 66 Ferndale Refinery hauling crude oil with two crew members on the train. Nobody was injured in the derailment, and the cause has yet to be determined. 

“We’ve not been able to get close enough to the site to make an evaluation as to what any cause or the origin was of the incident,” said Bill Elfo, Whatcom County sheriff.

Whatcom County Executive Satpal Sidhu issued a statement Tuesday afternoon regarding the derailment.

“It will likely be some time before we have answers to questions regarding the cause of the derailment and fire,” the statement reads. “I expect that investigation will begin in the very near future as will the assessment of property damage and environmental impact.”

Elfo said it was too early to speak to any connections between Tuesday’s derailment and the late-November arrests of two people suspected of placing disruptive devices called “shunts” on Whatcom and Skagit railroad tracks.