Red flag fire warnings persist in western Colorado
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — Firefighters in Colorado gained ground on a handful of wildfires Friday. By the end of the day, the deadly and destructive 15,000-acre Black Forest Fire was 30 percent contained. The Royal Gorge Fire was reported as 65 percent contained after burning across a footprint of about 3,200 acres of sagebrush and in pinon forests, including stands of trees killed by ips beetles.
New fires are also burning in western Colorado, where red flag fire warnings are in effect starting 12 p.m. Saturday (June 15). Gusty winds, warm temperatures and low humidity will create challenges for firefighters in the area, including at the lightning-sparked Ward Gulch Fire, where Lake Dillon Fire-Rescue deputy chief Jeff Berino is the incident commander.
At the Black Forest Fire, officials said rain helped firefighters establish some control of the flames — to the point that the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office was able to lift some evacuation orders.
“I’m feeling much better today … What I witnessed was very encouraging compared to the previous nights,” Sheriff Terry Maketa said Friday morning during a media briefing. “Yesterday we gained some tremendous ground, especially when it comes to structure protection. It was, to me, that turning point that we’ve been looking for Maketa said, at the same time revealing that 400 homes have been completely destroyed in a densely populated residential area that lacks fire hydrants.
Evident from aerial views of the destruction, the Black Forest Fire also showed how homes themselves can become ignition sources and contribute to the spread of a fire, as many houses were burned standing amidst islands of green trees. The fast-burning fire spread through grass and oak scrub, using ladder fuels to burn into the crowns in some areas.
National Guard troops helped with the ground battle, patrolling roads and reporting hot spots to firefighting teams, while airtankers launched a full-on aerial assault, dropping retardant in large streaks to slow the spread of the fire.
The cause of the fire is still unknown and law enforcement officials are conducting their investigation with the knowledge that two people died in the fire. Officials said they’re close to pinpointing the location, which is the first step in determining how the fire started.
Farther west, the Royal Gorge Fire near Cañon City was 65 percent contained by Saturday morning, with the flames mainly smoldering and creeping in rugged terrain west of the city. Officials said pockets of fuel remained within the burn perimeter but pose little threat to the containment lines.
Firefighters don’t expect the fire to grow anymore, and recreational access to some of the closed areas is being re-established. The cause of the Royal Gorge Fire is still under investigation.
In Garfield County, the 300-acre Ward Gulch Fire has resulted in the closure of Rifle Falls State Park and Rifle Mountain Park are closed. Rifle Gap State Park is open, but closed to boating due to the helicopter activity.
Four 20-person hand crews, a number of engines, a heavy helicopter, a medium helicopter, and two single engine air tankers, and an air attack plane are working the fire. Heavy air tanker support will be used today as well. Additional resources are on their way. Jeff Berino’s Type 3 Incident Management team assumed command of the fire at 6 a.m.
Follow the Ward Creek fire on Twitter @ucrfirecenter. The Colorado River Fire Rescue Regional Fire Authority is providing Facebook updates.
In Rocky Mountain National Park, the Big Meadows Fire is reported as about 30 percent contained and continues to burn in forest litter and standing beetle-killed trees. More information at the Big Meadows Inciweb.org web page.
At Dinosaur National Monument, lightning sparked six fires late in the week. The National Park Service is letting some of the fires burn for environmental benefits, while suppressing others. The Wild Fire is the largest, at about 360 acres. According to a park service press release, the fires are in a remote area and don’t pose any threat to property outside the monument boundaries or any monument facilities.
Three other fires that resulted from the lightning strikes on Thursday, June 13 have been successfully controlled. The Echo Fire was located near the Echo Park Overlook on the Harpers Corner Road. The Pool Fire was between Pool Creek and Trail Draw and the Limestone Fire was near the Iron Springs Bench area.
More information at this National Park Service website.