‘Luck helps a lot’
Luck. That’s what helped firefighters control one of the biggest fires to erupt in the Fraser Valley in recent history on Sunday, Oct. 3. Luck – like calm winds, cooler temperatures, a fleet of heavy air tankers and helicopters still on hand from the recent Four Mile Canyon Fire in Boulder and a 20-man hand crew from the Idaho Panhandle who happened to be working on fuel reduction in the area – along with a big dose of training, teamwork and local resources may have saved hundreds of houses from catastrophe. More than 250 firefighters from across the state and nation ultimately showed up to help fight the 530-acre fire on the backside of Sheep Mountain and Blue Ridge, 5 miles west of Fraser. But, it was the local fire departments and U.S. Forest Service’s Hot Sulphur Ranger District that were involved in the initial attack.East Grand Fire District Chief Todd Holzwarth described his first sight of the fire: “I saw it first from the valley floor,” he said. “I turned at Safeway, and could see it at a distance on the hillside. It was a small column of smoke, and I tried to get single engine air tanker on the way – a crop duster really.” But as Holzwarth approached the fire, he realized it was closer to County Road 50 than he originally estimated. The fire had already spread to 10 acres and was growing rapidly. “I realized then that this fire was going to escape our initial attack,” he said.
Holzwarth called Mountain Parks Electric to warn them that a big transmission line was in danger, but the fire got to it before anything could be done. Holzwarth said he called in additional equipment from fire districts around the county to get into the three closest subdivisions – Young Life, Pole Creek Reserve and Sheep Mountain Ridge Estates.Eventually, a total of 18 subdivisions were put on notice that they might be required to evacuate, “but those three were the biggest concern,” Holzwarth said. “The fire looked like it was going to rip around Sheep Mountain.” Within an hour, the fire had grown to 200 acres and was generating its own weather, Holzwarth said. “There were some good crown runs and it was super noisy, but from below, the firefighters on scene had a tough time seeing what was happening.” People in Granby and Fraser had a better view of it than the firefighters. “When that big plume went up, people got really concerned,” Holzwarth said.
The firefighters were doing all they could to hold County Road 50, which was their best access to the fire. “I thought it was going to burn across the road and I’d have to go home through Kremmling,” Holzwarth said. “But we didn’t lose that road.”The Type 2 hand crew that was in the area from the Idaho Panhandle also arrived on the scene very quickly, and Shawn Pearson assumed command. They worked burning out the brush to help protect road, Holzwarth said. Meanwhile, Hot Sulphur District Fire Management Officer Paul Mintier was calling in air support, and it arrived – a lot of it – fast. “The circumstances were fortuitous,” Holzwarth said. Ultimately five heavy air tankers, “big Orions and Neptunes” and four helicopters – some from the Boulder fire, some from Grand Junction – participated in the effort.
The first three hours of the fire were the worst and most active, said Sheriff Rod Johnson.”When I arrived on scene there were at least 15 acres on fire,” Mintier said. “The area was involved in a moderate intensity surface fire.” The area contained light slash and dense dead lodgepole pine stands. Once the fire got into the dead lodge pole, entire stands of trees started combusting at once (called group torching) and the fire was making massive crown runs up the steep slope for 400- to 600-foot stretches. The fire bumped into multiple aspen patches, which helped slow the spread of the fire. Fortunately, Mintier added, these stands hadn’t lost their leaves. Dried beds of aspen leaves on the ground can actually intensify a fire. The fire was spotting one-eighth of a mile ahead of itself.The initial strategy was to figure out what land features could help. The air tankers dropped some 45,000 gallons of retardant to help defend the ridge while ground crews used the old roads in the area to establish a perimeter. “Folks really didn’t the want fire embedded on other side of slope,” Mintier said. “The plan was to keep it boxed in.”As the Forest Service took command of the fire, Holzwarth helped distribute local fire crews into the surrounding neighborhoods to provide support and protection for taxpayer buildings, structures and property. “We’re not getting paid with federal dollars. We’re standing by, ready to take care of our structures and our people,” Holzwarth said.All of the county’s fire districts – Kremmling, Hot Sulphur, Granby, Grand Lake and East Grand – provided support during the fire. EMS had an ambulance on site every day and set up an emergency operations center, and Grand County Road and Bridge offered in-kind resources, including two bulldozers and operators and three water tenders and operators. The Grand County Sheriff’s Office set up four road blocks initially.A small settlement grew overnight on the ballfields outside Fraser, and Sherry Kent from Drive By Pies was among those who provided breakfast burritos and coffee (with the help of Kum & Go in Granby and Jill Miles of Grand River Coffee).
The Church Park Fire was the biggest and scariest fire Grand County has seen in a long time, said Sheriff Johnson. While the fire at the YMCA in 2007 was scary since it was so close to the highway and structures, the stand of trees was really an island and no buildings burned, nobody had to be evacuated.The Green Fire near Gore Pass was a bigger fire acreage-wise and had a lot of air support, but it most of it was in Routt County and it didn’t threaten big subdivisions. The last big, truly scary fire like this one was the Kawuneeche Fire in the early 1980s, which burned within a mile of Winding River Ranch and came close to Grand Lake. A federal fire investigator is looking into the cause of the fire, which is believed to have been caused by humans and is believed to have started less than 100 feet from County Road 50. Sheriff Johnson said the origin of the fire is not a place where people camp.”There are campgrounds up there that are utilized by people year after year,” Johnson said, “but this is not one of those spots.” While there had been reports of dirt bikes and hunters in the area, the cause of the fire has to be proved to be negligence and responsible parties identified for charges to be made.
For local fire crews, this was the first experience with a big wildland fire.”We don’t get a lot of experience with wildfires,” Holzwarth said. All the training paid off Sunday. “As the years go by, we go to trainings, we drill, and we seem to get a little better,” Holzwarth said. “The last few fires this summer built up to this, gave us more experience.” Several departments were even able to go to Boulder to help fight the Four Mile fire. “All that helps,” Holzwarth said, “but – with a fire like this – nothing much can be done initially. You can’t walk up to it with a hose. You have to be thinking about how to get into position, what’s the strategy, and what’s going to be happening two to three hours from now.”You have to get ahead rather than playing catch up,” he added. “When it’s running like that, you have to get way out in front of it and do what you can to protect. The air show helps, but a lot of it depends on luck of the weather and the wind. We learned how big and how fast a fire like this can get.” The Grand County Office of Emergency Management (OEM) worked with the sheriff’s office to create evacuation plans. Mountain Parks Electric staff came in to explain how their infrastructure was laid out and how the fire could impact various subdivisions.While a reverse 911 call went out to prepare 18 subdivisions for a possible evacuation, trigger points were identified so that if fire reached a certain spot, evacuations would be initiated, but, ultimately, nobody was evacuated.No structures had burned as of Tuesday.Young Life, which was closest to the fire, had its last group scheduled to leave that day, and they were already on their way out of town as the fire got going. The YMCA worked with the Emergency Operations Center to discuss their evacuation plan (which Sheriff Johnson said was amazingly in order.)”It was truly an amazing display of cooperation between all the entities in this county,” said Grand County Emergency Manager Trevor Denney. “The relationship between the fire districts, the Forest Service, state forest service and BLM in those first three hours – it’s amazing how quickly everyone came together. Every wildland resource in the county was there.””We’ve been working on this exact scenario for several years,” Denney said. “The relationships we built – to see it work as well as it did – is just a thrill. All the training paid off.”
As of Tuesday afternoon, the fire was still considered only 30 percent contained. Snags and leaners threaten to breech the line, Holzwarth said, so while the fire is under control and really hasn’t grown since Sunday, “it’s just not to where they can say its contained,” Holzwarth said. “I’m hoping today is the last day we’ll have to do standby structure protection.” There is also unburned fuel inside the fire that can ignite and burn, added Hot Sulphur District Ranger Craig Magwire. “There had been several timber sales inside this area, but the fire was so hot and large it quickly burned through the unit.”Magwire commended all the work the community has done to remove trees from private and public property. “It will absolutely pay off as we have fires in the future,” he said. “It’s fortunate that we didn’t have high winds that day,” Magwire added. “We definitely would have had a larger fire if we’d had higher winds. Thankfully we have higher humidity and cooler temperatures in the forecast aiding our effort and keeping the fire from spreading.””The local emergency services folks are really to be commended,” Magwire said. “They’ve been working hard and practicing hard, it doesn’t just happen overnight. They’ve learned lessons from the ‘Y’ fire and Onahu Fire. This is a group that learns and continues to get better. The response was quick, well organized, and the Forest Service ordered air support quickly- that was huge help.” “I hope that each time we do one of these things, we do it a little bit better,” Holzwarth said. “These are the things we trained for, and its kinda fun when it works the way we thought it would. Luck helps a lot.”- Reid Armstrong can be reached at 970-887-3334 ext. 19610 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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