Updated: Byers Canyon fire containment estimate upped to 60 percent
HOT SULPHUR SPRINGS — Thick smoky haze and the whirring pop of helicopter rotors filled the skies above Grand County on Tuesday morning as local firefighters worked to battle the Byers Canyon Fire, which started Monday morning, Aug. 24.
Firefighters worked against high winds Monday afternoon that spread the blaze quickly along the northern shoulders of Highway 40 just west of Byers Canyon. What was initially reported as a five-foot-by-five-foot fire quickly grew to more than 100 acres as shifting winds pushed the fire both east and west along the highway and north into the Parshall Divide area. Monday afternoon the fire also jumped Highway 40 and began moving into areas south of the road.
As of Tuesday night local officials were putting the overall containment at 60 percent with the fire covering an area slightly under 600 acres. Grand County EMS Emergency Manager Nowell Curran said the efforts Tuesday were being directed primarily to the north side of Highway 40 with a focus on air support.
The fire south of Highway 40 appeared to be under control at mid-day Tuesday.
“It has hot spots but isn’t spreading,” Curran said.
North of the Highway firefighters contended with 20-foot flames as increasing winds Tuesday afternoon spurred caution. Highway 40 through Byers Canyon was closed intermittently Tuesday, though officials said it was not affecting travel much.
The fire started Monday morning shortly before noon at the Byers Canyon Shooting Range just west of the Colorado River. Officials have confirmed the fire was started by a .223 full metal jacket rifle round. County officials stressed the ammunition was legal at the rifle range and the fire was not started by a tracer/phosphorus round. Emergency Manager Curran saw the situation as a teachable moment and suggested those using the shooting range bring a fire extinguisher with them in the future.
Monday afternoon the fire began spreading and pushed into the north rim of Byers Canyon and into portions of the canyon itself. Tuesday two air tankers and one helicopter worked from the skies to put the conflagration down. The two tankers were called out of the Craig Interagency Dispatch Center and included one single-engine tanker and one heavy air tanker, both dropping retardant, or as it is sometimes colloquially known, slurry.
Curran explained the airdrops into Byers Canyon use water only and not the retardant often used in aerial firefighting. The helicopter conducting the airdrops is filling its water bucket in the Colorado River. The coordination for the airdrops is done using air-to-ground radio contact and local fire officials direct the pilots.
Monday as the fire spread one home was evacuated, though the residents were allowed to return Monday evening and no other evacuation orders have been issued. Curran confirmed no structures have been damaged and no injuries have been reported. A smoke advisory was issued Tuesday due to the heavy smoke west of Byers Canyon and officials closed down County Road 20 for fire operations.
Along with the air support units a 20-man hand crew was called to the area from Juniper Valley Buena Vista. They worked alongside Hot Sulphur Fire, Parshall Fire, Kremmling Fire, Grand Lake Fire, the Office of Emergency Management, County EMS, Grand County Sheriff’s Office, the Colorado State Patrol, the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.
Schelly Olson, assistant chief for Grand Fire, explained local firefighters were working Tuesday to dig fire lines around the blaze and cool already burned spots using their water hoses. Olson explained that each of the firefighters on the line carries specialized hand tools, wildland fire packs and fire shelters as a safety precaution. Similarly, the firefighters pre-identify safety zones and escape routes are pre-marked.
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Firefighters plan to begin burning slash piles at several locations on Bureau of Land Management-managed lands within the Kremmling Field Office’s jurisdiction when conditions allow.